The number 28 says plenty about the University of Akron’s track and field program.
That’s the number of athletes in 31 events the Zips sent to the NCAA preliminaries last month. Coach Dennis Mitchell said such a number is a sure sign of a program rising to national recognition.
Eight of those 28 will compete in Eugene, Ore., at the NCAA championships from today through Saturday, the most the Zips have ever sent to the event.
Four of the eight are pole vaulters, an area that is clearly UA’s strength.
On the men’s side, Shawn Barber, the phenom who has dominated the Mid-American Conference since arriving at UA, leads the way. He will be joined by Annika Roloff, a vaulter from Germany studying abroad for a semester, along with Caroline Hasse and Claire Lucas.
For Barber, choosing UA was a testimonial for Mitchell.
“I just wanted to find somewhere I knew I was going to get better,” Barber said. “A lot of kids go to college and they kind of peak early. I wanted to find someplace that would aid in my progression.”
Mitchell, in his 19th season with the Zips, is a 17-time MAC Coach of the Year and previously toiled at Texas and North Carolina, where he gained a reputation as someone who developed pole vaulters, including more than a few All-Americans.
“He puts a lot of effort into it and time as well,” said Roloff, this year’s women’s indoor and outdoor MAC champion in the event. “He really does take care of us. I think he just loves pole vault. He’s a motivator and we all have fun when he’s around pole vaulters.”
Barber holds a host of records, including indoor and outdoor Canadian national marks. He credits the tone that Mitchell and the coaching staff set for his continuing evolution, which included claiming this year’s indoor national championship.
“We try to make sure we keep a very light atmosphere,” he said. “We try to make sure we’re having fun while we’re vaulting. People take athletics too seriously, I think. We keep a very good mood about it.”
It’s that relaxed attitude that they plan to take with them to Oregon where expectations are significant.
“Hopefully, we do really well. Hopefully, we all make first team All-American [which requires a finish in the top eight in the field],” Barber said. “That’s the first goal. Then it would be nice if we could get a couple more titles.”
Roloff said she rarely focuses on goals or expectations, instead choosing to pay attention to basics.
“I just want to concentrate on my technique and then the heights will come,” she said.
Mitchell is optimistic and confident that Barber and Roloff in particular are in a good position.
We’re going in with the idea that we’re in contention — both men and women — for a national title,” he said. “They’re both in a position where they can try to do that. They’ve both been there and one was third indoors. She beat the national champion the last time they met in Texas.”
Mitchell is also realistic.
“It’s going to be pretty tight,” he said. “There’s a really good field out there, and we just want to be in the position that at the end we’ve got a shot at it.”
Success by anyone on the team — which also includes hammer throwers Brittany Funk and Alexis Cooks (who also throws discus) and decathletes Bryan Jones and Alex McCune — only helps the program grow in stature nationally. The Zips rank No. 2 in the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association NCAA Division I Regional Index on the men’s side and fifth on the women’s.
“We’re extremely close right now,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been in that kind of conference mode for the past several years, but we’ve been making the big push at the national situation for the last few years. We’re finally getting ourselves where we can attract the kind of athletes that can do well nationally. We’re sitting right there.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.