by Rob Moseley
Track Town is Title Town.
Fueled by three individual national champions Saturday, the Oregon men won their first team title at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships since 1984. The Ducks needed 24 points entering the day to secure an outdoor title, after winning the NCAA Indoor title earlier this year, and got all that and more with wins from Mac Fleet in the 1,500 meters, Sam Crouser in the javelin and Devon Allen in the 110 hurdles.
Tanguy Pepiot (steeplechase) and Arthur Delaney (200) also scored for the UO men, who put up a meet-record 88 points. Florida was second with 70, after collecting three event titles of its own Saturday at Hayward Field. Oregon's margin of victory was the largest at the meet since 1994.
"If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that 70 points would not have won the NCAA championship, I would have been like, you're crazy," UO coach Robert Johnson said.
The three individual champions followed Edward Cheserek's win in the 10,000 meters Wednesday. In between the Ducks augmented their score with points elsewhere, including a 2-3-4 finish in the 5,000 on Friday that embodied the team's "Strength in Numbers" mantra.
"It's a really special group of guys, a really close team," Fleet said. "To show up and be able to compete well, it's incredible."
Fleet avenged Cheserek's loss to Arizona's Lawi Lalang in the 5k by outkicking Lalang Saturday, giving the UO senior his second straight 1,500 national title. Crouser came through with the winning javelin throw on his final attempt of the competition, within minutes of Allen — a redshirt freshman receiver whose first priority remains football — shocking the 11,344 in attendance with his championship run in the hurdles.
Allen's race wrapped up the team title for Oregon, a good thing since the Ducks' 4x400 team — on which Allen competed — committed a lane violation in the semifinals and didn't compete in the finals.
"Our men's team really showed up this week," Fleet said. "Eighty-eight points, with an ugly DQ in the 4x4, it's awesome."
While the wins from Fleet and Crouser were not unexpected, Allen's victory left even Johnson "shocked," the coach acknowledged.
In the middle of the pack early in the race, Allen powered over the final hurdle and through his final few strides to win in 13.16 seconds. That wasn't just a personal best and UO record, it was the second-fastest time ever run by a collegian.
Allen became the first freshman to win the 110 hurdles title since 1976.
"As the year progressed, I felt like I could go for it," said Allen, who split time between track and football during the football team's spring practices throughout April. "And that's what I did today. With the fans behind me and everything like that, I'm just happy. I'm really excited and proud to be a Duck."
Allen, described by Johnson as "a super-competitor," bested Aleec Harris of USC by just two-hundredths of a second. But he confidently raised his arms in jubilation even before final times popped up on the stadium scoreboard.
"I told my friends if I won I wouldn't show any emotion, but I couldn't — I had to," said Allen, who scored two touchdowns in the football team's spring game and is expected to contend for a starting job in the fall. "I was really excited to win, and score some points for my team."
By the time the gun went off in the 110 hurdles, the Ducks simply needed Allen to avoid a false start and then successfully navigate the hurdles. Even a last-place finish would have given Oregon the one point it needed to secure the team title.
Crouser's win put the UO men in that position. He led the javelin competition after the end of the first flight with a throw of 243-11, fell behind Kentucky's Raymond Dykstra entering the sixth round and then uncorked the winning throw of 252-7.
"You just have to go after it and attack, use that homefield crowd to your advantage," Crouser said. "And that's what happened. It's just a dream come true, to be honest. I couldn't be happier."
Crouser's father, Dean, was a three-time NCAA champion as a UO thrower, and his uncle Brian was both a two-time NCAA champion in the javelin and a member of the last UO men's team to win the NCAA team title, in 1984. His cousin, Ryan, won the shot put title for Texas on Wednesday.
That was also the day Cheserek won the 10k, helping the Ducks get the ball rolling to their impressive team title this week.
"Ed and guys like that have just given us such a relaxed (feeling)," Crouser said. "We're up by quite a few points, so I just had to come in and do my thing."
Fleet became the first man to repeat as NCAA champ in the 1,500 since 1997-98, edging Lalang at the line to win in 3:39.09.
Fleet typically prefers to run off the lead and finish strong. He ran second behind Lalang most of the race, but was comfortable enough with the pace to stay near the front.
"When we came through 80 and it was what it was (1:58), I was pretty excited," Fleet said. "My chances, I thought, got better."
Just as Lalang took advantage of Cheserek's having won the 10k earlier in the meet to outkick him in the 5,000 on Friday, Fleet had the better kick in the 1,500 one day later.
"I got maybe half a stride and had a little misstep," Fleet said. "I could see Lawi's hands (just to my left) the entire way through — he's got that big arm swing — so I knew he was there the entire time. … Big lean, big twist at the end — awesome feeling."
Fleet said wrapping up his career with consecutive titles made him "feel like this is exactly how the story was supposed to go."
While Fleet was writing the final chapter to his career, freshman Sam Prakel is in the early stages. He was something of a surprise qualifier for the 1,500 final, and ran a PR of 3:41.04 to finish 10th on Saturday.
"This whole weekend is going to benefit me in the future," Prakel said. "Given experience in a race like that, and it was my PR … just being in that race was an honor."
It was a similar story for Arthur Delaney, a surprise qualifier for the 200 final. Motivated to make up for his lane violation that resulted in the 4x400 team being disqualified, Delaney gave the Ducks two points with a seventh-place finish in the 200.
"It'll be there next year," said Delaney, who was victimized by a poor start in the final. "This was my first national championships individually, so it's a good learning experience."
The team title made Oregon one of just two schools ever to win three of the four indoor and outdoor team titles in the same year. That's an impressive update to Johnson's resume, though the full weight of the accomplishment hadn't quite hit him yet Saturday, he said.
"Oregon is steeped in tradition," Johnson said. "I know there's a lot of hall of fame guys before me, and I try not to get too caught up in those types of things. …
"For us to be able to win a national championship, one of the few in 30-something years, that's pretty special, probably one of the highlights of my career. I guess I balance that with, I'm just one of the shepherds of the prorgam. Sooner or later my time will run out, and somebody else will come in and shepherd the program to hopefully continue the legacy we have here."
For now, though, it's Johnson who gets to celebrate bringing another title back to Track Town.