The men’s and women’s track teams are sending nine athletes to Jacksonville, Fla., but not for vacation.
Instead, the four men and five women heading to Florida are competing in the qualifying rounds of the NCAA Track & Field Championships, which will take place from May 24-26. The events that happen over the weekend will narrow down the field of 48 to 24 in the preliminary round and to just 12 in the quarterfinals in each event. The semi-finals and finals in each event will take place in Des Moines, Iowa, in June.
Penn is sending seniors Victoria Strickland (800m), Paige Madison (400H) and Kristen Judge (high jump), and juniors Morgan Wheeler (javelin) and Jillian Hart (pole vault).
“I’m excited that we have a big squad going this year,” Madison wrote in an email. “Even though it’s “individual” now, a big part of why we’re here is because of each other, because we challenge one another to be our best and perservere through anything and everything.”
Madison is making her second career appearance at the championship meet in the 400-meter hurdles. As a sophomore, Madison finished just seven-tenths of a second short of making the quarterfinals. She is the only woman in Penn history to break 60 seconds in the event and comes to the meet seeded 25 and with a season-best mark of 59.21.
“I’m very excited to have made it this far after working through so many injuries over the past couple of years,” Madison said. “It feels like all the training and hard work we’ve put in as a team has really paid off.”
Strickland likewise holds a spot on Penn’s all-time list, ranking second in the 800-meters with a time of 2:06.88. Strickland was a quarter finalist in the same event at last year’s NCAA Champs and fell just short of qualifying for the semis.
Judge, seeded 43rd, earned her trip to Jacksonville with a school-record high jump performance on April 14, cleanly passing 1.75 meters. Her personal-best jump is just .03 meters off the 24th seed.
For the three seniors, the weekend’s events have extra weight because, as Madison said, every race at this point “could be [their] last date with the track.”
Despite that added pressure, both she and Judge pointed out that in the flurry of end-of-year senior activities, it can be hard to stay focused.
“Being a senior, it’s harder and easier to be motivated right now,” Madison said. “It’s harder because we do have events like graduation, senior week and career planning that can easily consume us, but at the same time we must remain very disciplined on the track since we still have goals we want to accomplish.”
Judge, a first-time NCAA Champs competitor, is not too concerned about the future, at least for the time being.
“I’m really just trying to get my head in the meet now and keep in the present. I’m looking forward to giving it my all and see where that takes me,” Judge said.
Wheeler is also making her second appearance at the meet for the Quakers. The junior finished 35th overall at NCAAs last year and has since improved to fourth all-time at Penn in the javelin with a personal-best toss of 45.04 meters. Seeded 28th, she has the greatest chance of making the quarterfinals with only .75 meters separating her qualifying throw from the 24th seed.
Hart, coming off her best collegiate season to date, is making her NCAA Champs debut in the pole vault. The 48th-seeded junior earned her place on Penn’s all-time list (2nd) and the chance to compete in NCAAs at the Penn-Princeton dual meet, winning the pole vault with a 3.85-meter effort.
Representing the Quaker men are seniors Brian Fulton (800m) and Ryan Cunningham (1,500m) and sophomores Maalik Reynolds (high jump) and Jake Benza (shot put).
In his second NCAA Championship appearance, Fulton is seeded 30th in the 800-meters, an event that will be among the most competitive on the weekend. The three-time All-Ivy recipient is coming into the meet hot off a career-best performance, and the seventh-best all-time at Penn (1:49.49) at the Heptagonal Championships.
Cunningham qualified to compete at the meet with the second-fastest 1,500-meter time at Penn in the last 34 years at the George Mason Patriot Invitational. Though the senior is seeded 45th, his 1,500-meter time of 3:45.93, sixth on Penn’s all-time list, is only a second behind the 24th seed.
Underclassmen and 39th-seeded Brenza, like his senior teammates, is within striking distance of the quarterfinals in the shot put. At Heps, he had the third-best toss in program history and the best since 1981 at 17.25 meters, which cemented his spot at NCAA Champs.
Sophomore standout and fourth-seeded Reynolds has the best chance among the men of making it to Des Moines. A veteran of the national championship meet, Reynolds is already a two-time All-American and finished seventh in the outdoor championships as a freshman in 2011. He holds the sixth-best high jump in the nation at 2.24 meters, but he will face stiff competition in the top two seeds, both of whom are jumping 2.31 meters or higher.
All athletes competing recognize that they will be competing against the highest caliber collegiate athletes in the country, but Judge recognized that her chance of doing well in the competition is as good as anyone else’s.
“We’re all here for a reason, and based on my experience, all the hype of the prestige of the meet kind of melts away when it comes down to the raw competition of it. It’s still a meet,” she said. “The stakes are just higher.”