With a record-breaking team of ten athletes, five of whom are the first Quakers to qualify for their events, Penn track and field is geared up for the NCAA Championship this week.
The Red and Blue will be competing in nine events, and while the competition is steep, these athletes are capable of coming home with substantial titles by the end of this Saturday. They clearly have the stats to stand toe-to-toe with their fellow contenders.
Many have their eyes on junior Nia Akins, whose performance in the 800-meters this season has been nothing short of impressive. Heading into her second consecutive NCAA championship, Akins earned the title of the USTFCCCA Women’s Track Athlete of the Year in the Mid-Atlantic Region just last week and is currently ranked ninth nationally in the 800. On top of this, she holds the program record in five events, including the 800, and snatched two Heptagonal Championship titles this year.
“By nature, having done this before, I feel like I now belong in the class of national caliber runners,” Akins said. “Last year was really overwhelming for me because it took a heroic run to slip into one of the last qualifying spots to even get to nationals. I feel like [the] contrast [from] last year to this year is a huge advantage and quite the confidence booster.”
Her runs this week will be a memorable part of Penn’s NCAA showing in the relay event as well. Akins will be joined by junior Cecil Ene, sophomore Uchechi Nwogwugwu, and freshman Skyla Wilson in the 4X400. This will be the first time Penn will compete in this event, and the team is more than eager to pass this milestone.
“I know that I’m a part of a unit that is quite frankly making history, which is a very encouraging mindset,” Akins said. “I know for [Nwogwugwu] and myself, we will carry the confidence and fire we gained from the Penn Relays DMR (distance medley relay) to nationals.”
Like Akins, Nwogwugwu will also compete in two events, becoming the first Penn women’s sprinter to compete in the NCAA 400.
Another hallmark of the Penn competitors is the notable presence of underclassmen; three of the ten qualifying athletes are freshmen. This bodes well for the future of Penn track and suggests the potential for national showings in the coming years.
One of these athletes, Mayyi Mahama, is one of only two freshmen competing in the hammer throw. But this should hardly faze her, considering she has the eight-best qualifying mark in the 24-person field.
Freshman Marc Minichello is also facing stiff competition in the upperclassmen-dominated javelin throw. As one of only eight underclassmen, Minichello is realistic, but determined to take on the challenge.
“In my case, I am one of the new guys on the scene, and do not have too many expectations to fill,” Minichello said. “I am embracing the underdog role this week and trying to make a Cinderella story come true.”
On the other hand, Anna Peyton Malizia is the only senior to move on to the championship, and faces a tight competition in the high jump. While her qualifying jump of 1.80m is the best mark in the field, she is tied with two-thirds of the contenders, and the rest of the athletes are only 0.05m behind. The competition in the high jump this week will be neck-and-neck, and Malizia needs to make every fraction of a meter count if she hopes to finish her collegiate career with a bang.
Junior Colin Daly’s impressive performance in the steeplechase earned him a spot in the NCAA event, a first for Penn track. This will be his first showing at the national championship, and the pressure as the trailblazer is on for the Quakers in the event.
Other athletes headed for the championship are sophomore Ashley Anumba for the discus and junior Sean Clarke for pole vault. This will be both Anumba and Clarke’s second time at the NCAA, with Anumba given honorable mention All-America last year. The competition in these field events is formidable, so it remains to be seen whether or not they are able to surpass their previous NCAA standings.
The Red and Blue will be in Austin, TX for the NCAA Championship from Wednesday, June 5 to Saturday, June 8. As historic as this year’s preliminaries have been, the Quakers should anticipate unforgettable performances this week.