NCAA: For 2nd year in a row, Ducks smell the roses, but finish with neither team title

By Lev Rourke
Photos by Kim Spir

EUGENE – The table was set. Oregon had a shot at both NCAA team championships – a better chance, people said, than they had in 2009 – and this time, it would be at home, in the friendly confines of Hayward Field, in front of thousands of rabid fans wearing only lemon and lime, and even perhaps with lousy Northwest weather in their favor.
They got the fans, they got the rain and the cold and the fog. They just didn’t get the points. A year earlier they finished 2nd in both competitions to Texas A&M, in humid, stormy Fayetteville, Ark. In 2010 they got a 2nd and a 3rd – both are trophies, grand achievements – but once the doors were closed and the coaches and brass assessed things in secrecy, there had to be disappointments, clipboards thrown at the wall, frustration. And again, Texas A&M, far from home and far from their comfort zone weather-wise, won both championships.
The championships will return to Hayward Field in 2013. By then Brianne Theisen – winner again of the heptathlon – will be gone. Alex Kosinski – who ran brilliantly, getting 3rd in her new event, the 5,000 – will be gone. Ashton Eaton and Andrew Wheating, both of whom won championships, have graduated and will move on to professional stardom.
Some of the disappointment is softened by other accomplishments. This Ducks group has, after all, won both the men’s and women’s indoor championships – a new source of hardware for an Oregon squad that used to ignore the indoor season. They won several NCAA national cross country championships, with Galen Rupp at the fore. They are often named Program of the Year by the NCAA. Head Coach Vin Lananna is recognized.
But this was supposed to be the year! Everything was in place! The hometown fans would be rewarded for their years of patience – men’s title at home in 1984, women’s (on the road) in 1985, none since. The sweep of the Pac-10 championships the past two seasons – 2009’s at home – was a tuneup, a Preview of Coming Attractions.
The next two years, the NCAA meet moves to the Midwest. It will be held at Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa, where it is almost certain to be warm, humid conditions. Oregon, a distance-oriented program, historically has trouble in that climate (although the women’s 1985 title admittedly came in steamy Austin, Texas).
What went wrong? Could the Ducks have won this year?
The javelin cost Oregon the team championship. Just as the famous 1-2-3 sweep of this event led Oregon to its 2nd title, in 1964 – in Hayward Field – the javelin was its downfall this time.
For the second year in a row, Cyrus Hostetler entered the championships with the season’s leading mark and with Favorite draped around his neck. In 2009, he finished 4th – 2nd place would have given Oregon the team championship. This year – coming back from knee surgery following a basketball injury over the summer – a rehabilitated Hostetler returned to form, threw 255 during the spring, and was the favorite against a modest field. If he had won the event – the form charts had him winning – Oregon would have won the meet. His 10 points, plus the resulting downgrading of the A&M thrower by 1 point, would have given them a 1-point victory.
Of course hindsight is 20-20. Of course! And every team can point to a variety of disappointments over the course of four intensely competitive days. Nevertheless, observers said that Oregon would be helped by inclement weather, because its athletes are accustomed to it, and others would be hurt by it.
There was finger-pointing in the javelin. The first flight of throwers had a dry runway. During ensuing warm-ups for Flight II, it started raining, and it rained off and on for the rest of the competition. Hostetler and his teammate Alex Wolff were in Round II. Were they hurt by the change in weather? Would they have thrown better from a dry runway?
Pontus Thomee of Boise State, the eventual runnerup, was also in Flight II. The surprise winner, Craig Kinsley of Brown (left), was in Flight I, but his best throw came in the finals – when it was raining. Brown University is in Rhode Island, where the spring weather is similar to Oregon’s. Finishing 3rd and 4th were Kyle Nielsen and Joe Zimmerman – UW Huskies. The weather didn’t seem to bother them. Maybe it’s even colder and wetter in Seattle than here. Heck, I bet Kyle and Joe said, “Hey, it’s almost 60 degrees today. It’s hot! And, hey, they call this rain? This is mist!”
Was the javelin the killer for the men? Perhaps, although there were other places for scrap points that, added together, could have made it close:
In the 5,000, seniors Jordan McNamara and Michael Maag had a chance to score, especially off the slow pacesetting. McNamara wound up 8th, 1 second out of 6th. Maag, the graduate-student transfer from Princeton, finished out of the money, 16th.
Jordan Stray, benefiting from mediocre throwing by competitors in the hammer, made the 9-man final at 212-4, but he did not improve on his final three throws and wound up 9th, scoring no points. He finished 1 foot out of 7th.
Ashton Eaton went for the decathlon-long jump double. Yes, he jumped a prodigious 26-4.5 in the LJ at Regionals, but the dec takes it out of you. He was exhausted after winning the dec on Thursday and Friday, and in Saturday’s long jump final, he managed one modest jump and was pulled from the competition. In the dec, he was clearly trying to break the collegiate record and fell just short. He won the competition by hundreds of points. In hindsight, did he have to go all-out in the decathlon? If he had saved something, could he have done better in Saturday’s long jump?
How do you explain Luke Puskedra’s strategy in the 10,000? Puskedra, a talented sophomore who has run well for the Ducks, was considered a possible scorer in the event, but he was certainly not a threat to Samuel Chelanga of Liberty, who is the collegiate recordholder. As the race unfolded, Chelanga broke away early. Only one runner chose to go with him: Puskedra. He hung on for a while, then fell back into no man’s land. Eventually, the chase pack roared past. Even the pleading cheers of the hometown fans could not will him forward. The legs were gone. Puskedra finished 14th. Why didn’t Luke run with the chase pack? Was this his own strategy, or his coaches’?
Give Stray 1 more foot, 7th place and 2 points. Give McNamara 1 more second, 6th place, 2 more points. Give Eaton a lower score in the dec and 5th place in the LJ, 4 points. And finally, give Puskedra a sane approach in the 10k and a time of 28:58, 6th place and 3 points. Ignore the javelin, forgive Hostetler. That totals 11 points, enough to win the title in spite of everything else.
A&M won by what seemed to be a sizable margin, 72-57. Despite losing their two star hurdlers, the Aggies found new ways to score points, including a huge 5th in the 200 by their No. 3 entrant, Dominique Duncan. When they went 1-2-4 in the event, they wrapped up the championship.
Why did they go 1-2-4? Because Oregon’s Amber Purvis false-started at Regionals, that’s why.
Purvis was one of the favorites in the event, especially given the cool conditions. She’s accustomed to that by now. She dominated the Pac-10 final, but in the Regional quarterfinal in Austin, she false-started and was eliminated from the event – this after the Oregon coaches had earlier removed her from the 100, where she also might have been a contender. This was done to allow her to concentrate on one individual race and the two relays. She ran very well in the relays, where the Ducks were tremendous – 3rd in the 4x1 and a thrilling victory in the 4x4. But for the second year in a row, Purvis failed to make an NCAA individual final.
There were some intriguing decisions by the Oregon coaches of how to use their superb stable of distance runners, but on the women’s side, it may not have actually cost them any points:
·        In the 1,500, Oregon had qualified Zoe Buckman, Jordan Hasay and Alex Kosinski. Buckman, the senior from Australia who ran 4:12 this spring and fresh from victory at the Pac-10 – where she finished well ahead of, among others, Jordan Hasay and Alex Kosinski – was given the best chance of making the final in the event. Ironically, in Heat I, the 7th-place finisher was Kosinski, who ran a lifetime-best 4:15. Qualifying in the event was 5+2, meaning that Kosinski would make the final only if 6th and 7th in Heat II ran slower than her 4:15. At that point, it is believed that the Oregon coaching staff devised a strategy for Heat II. They were, in fact, trying to control Heat II in a way that would help their runner from Heat I. Hasay was instructed to go the front and slow the pace down. (Is this gamesmanship? Is it legal? Is it unethical?) The reasoning was that Buckman, who has a good kick and had the 4:12 credential, would move on smoothly to the final, while Hasay – she of little kick – would be sacrificed, unless she could hang on and qualify as well. So, what happened? Buckman didn’t make it! Hasay did her job, hung tough, made the top 5 and moved on to the final. Buckman faded, finished 6th, and because the pace was slow – a product of Oregon’s own design – she failed to advance on time. Kosinski made it instead. In the final, the freshman Hasay again ran a very smart race, and finished an unexpected 3rd. Kosinski, who was doubling back from a strenuous 5,000 – where she ran quite well – had nothing left and finished out of the money. In hindsight, would Buckman, who was not doubling, have had a better chance of scoring than Kosinski? Well, yes. Did the Ducks outthink themselves and come up with a devious strategy that wound up costing them in the end?
·        Jumper Jamesha Youngblood was staring at possible quadruple duty: anchor the 4x1, lead off the 4x1, both horizontal jumps. At Pac-10, she had triplejumped more than 43 feet, a lifetime best and school record. At NCAA, she jumped a listless 41-5.75, finished 17th and did not make the final. It is believed that Jamesha, a wildly talented young woman from California, does not like the triple jump – or the 400 hurdles, which she also ran several times during the season as the Ducks experimented with ways for her to score at the national level. In the end, Youngblood placed 4th in the long jump – one place lower than 2009 – anchored the 4x1 to an excellent 3rd place, and gave up her spot in the 4x4 to the heptathlete Theisen, who filled in admirably. To win the meet, Oregon needed more points from Youngblood.
·        Theisen won the heptathlon handily, and ran on that winning 4x4. Could she also have attempted an individual event, the way the multieventer Eaton did on the men’s side? The best candidate would have been the high jump, where she has a lifetime-best of 6-1 ¼. The event conflicted with the hep, and she did not enter it. But Chealsea Taylor of Alabama did, and she was a heptathlete. Taylor wound up jumping 6-1 ½ in the heptathlon HJ, and also placed 5th in the individual HJ. And Alabama was not in contention for the team championship. Eaton won the heptathlon by more than 400 points. The winning height in the individual high jump? 6-1 ¼.
·        Did Purvis’s false start at Regionals doom the Ducks’ chance at winning the national championship? Perhaps so. But if you give Youngblood 4 points in the triple jump, Theisen 5 points in the high jump and Buckman 4 points in the 1,500, they would have been close.

As Oregon looks ahead, they lose some terrific seniors but have the nucluei of potential team champions:
·        The men lose Wheating, Eaton and Hostetler but return milers Mac Fleet, Matthew Centrowitz and A. J. Acosta, halfmilers Travis Thompson and Elijah Greer, and have recruited – among others – Sam Crouser, the son of former Duck Dean Crouser. Sam recently broke the national high school record in the javelin, throwing 255-4 – a distance that would have won this year’s NCAA championship.
·        The women graduate Nicole Blood, a fearless distance runner who finished 3rd in the NCAA 10,000 in just her 3rd race at the distance. Most of the rest of the team is back, and they are adding, among others, a sprinter from New Jersey, English Gardner, and two brilliant young halfmilers, Laura Roesler (2:03) of North Dakota and Phyllis Francis (2:05) from New York City.