For Penn track and field, the past weekend was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
After months of hard work and continuous team improvement, three of Penn’s top athletes got the chance to represent the school at collegiate track and field’s most elite and competitive meet: the NCAA Finals.
Those athletes were 2014 Penn graduate jumper Maalik Reynolds and rising junior throwers Sam Mattis and Kelsey Hay, all of whom advanced to the Finals after strong performances in NCAA Regional competition.
All three made the trip out to compete in Eugene, Ore. along with various members of Penn’s coaching staff, including head coach Steve Dolan. Dolan was unable to be reached for comment at this time.
Going into the weekend, Dolan had high expectations for all three of his athletes, but especially for Reynolds and Mattis, both of whom were high qualifiers in Regionals and were expected to compete for All-American honors.
And in the end, all three athletes would deliver on their respective expectations.
Of special significance was the performance of Reynolds, the last of his storied career in the Red and Blue.
Over the past few years, Reynolds has been the undisputed face of Penn’s track and field program, consistently ranking amongst the top high jumpers in the nations and racking up enough accolades to make several premiere athletes careers.
However, Reynolds has had a relatively up-and-down year by his lofty standards, most surprisingly registering a disappointing showing at this year’s indoor Heptagonal Championships .
But Reynolds erased all memory of indoor Heps with a solid seventh place, becoming a first-team All-American for the sixth time and ending his storied college career on top.
Reynolds’ exit will undoubtedly be a huge blow to Penn’s program, but there is an exciting group of young, talented athletes who are more than ready to take his place at the helm.
Among this group of up-and-coming stars are Mattis and Hay, both of whom broke out during the season.
Mattis and Hay have led the resurgence of the Quakers’ throwing program, which was arguably the most consistent source of the team’s relative success throughout the outdoor season after a few years of relative obscurity.
Mattis was one of the nation’s top performers in the discus and one of the stars of the men’s squad all season, and he continued his winning ways over the weekend at the NCAA Finals.
With a monstrous toss of 60.33-meters, Mattis earned a fifth-place finish in the meet’s discus throw and the first All-American honors of his career.
Fellow rising junior Hay had a similar breakout season to Mattis in that she was arguably the women’s most consistent top performer, but she did not go into the Finals with similar expectations.
While Mattis was a high qualifier, Hay earned the last qualifying spot in the women’s javelin.
However, as she has done all season, she outperformed expectations, registering a 47.28m throw en route to a very encouraging 18th place overall finish. With that finish, she earned honorable mention All-American status, the first such recognition of her career.
By showcasing both the exit of the program’s top senior and national arrival of two of its top underclassmen, the NCAA Finals clearly illustrated a trend that has developed all year for Penn track and field: the rise of the program’s young athletes.
However, one of the program’s young guns was conspicuously absent from the proceedings.
Distance runner Thomas Awad was unable to qualify for Finals after falling ill during his qualifying meet. It was an unrepresentative end to what was an otherwise utterly dominant season for the rising junior.
In this respect, the Finals were a bit disappointing and the pot of gold a bit less heavy.
But it is doubtful that Dolan views the situation the same way.
Dolan has always stressed the importance of his team’s journey, but to him, there never was a proverbial pot of gold at the end of the season.
In fact, he has already moved on from the outdoor season and made a trip overseas, supporting a select group of his athletes who will compete in Europe over the summer.
To him, the NCAA Finals were never supposed to provide any tangible payoff, but rather just another checkpoint on his young team’s journey to greatness.
The real payoff may lay months or even years into the future, but at this rate, it looks like it will be sweet.