LEXINGTON — The University of Kentucky track and field team will have to overcome several obstacles if the Wildcats are to make a significant mark on the NCAA Track & Field Championships Wednesday through Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
This meet is rarified air for most of the Wildcats under second-year head coach Edrick Floreal.
First, this will be the first nationals appearance for most of the 16 UK athletes who will be in Eugene — 12 women and four men. For the few who have been there, this will be the first time they have met up with such lofty expectations.
Second, this will be the first time most of the Wildcats have been to a University of Oregon facility that has, arguably, the most storied track and field tradition in the sport’s history.
“It’s the first (national) experience for everybody,” said Floreal. “Even for Andrew Evans ... it’s a new experience for him because he’s expected to win two events. So it’s all something they have not experienced.”
Evans, a senior from Portage, Mich., is one of the best discus throwers in the world, and, not surprisingly, a top seed in the event in Eugene.
It’s a trio of women who lead Kentucky into nationals, however. Those three all won events in the East Regional at Jacksonville, Fla., recently.
Sha’Keela Saunders, a redshirt freshman from Suffolk, Va., won the regional long jump in a school record 21-75/6.43 meters.
Kendra Harrison, a junior from Clayton, N.C., won the 400-meter hurdles in 55.90 seconds, and Dezerea Bryant, a junior from Milwaukee, took the 200 meters in 23.09.
Harrison will also run the 100 hurdles at nationals; Bryant is also in the 100 sprint; and sophomore Rebecca Famurewa, from Brecksville, Ohio, has qualified for the women’s discus and hammer throw, to round out the leaders.
Floreal has clearly made strides in raising the profile of track and field at Kentucky. But what’s happening in his second year and what track and field has meant to the Oregon community for decades are quite a culture shock.
“They call it Track Town USA,” Floreal said of Eugene. “People come there to watch the meet, and they sell out the stadium. They are track FANS. They understand track. Oh man, it’s going to be deafening.”
Floreal said he’s trying to let his athletes know what to expect, short of actually being there.
“I want them to know what’s going to happen there before it happens,” said Floreal, who spent a lot of time at Oregon in recent years when he coached at Pac 12 rival Stanford. “I want to tell them this is what it’s going to feel like.
“I want to tell Andrew (Evans), ‘When you get in the (discus) ring, everybody is going to pay attention. You’re going to hear the whispers of your competitors … ‘This is the guy who’s leading the country,’ or, ‘Oh man, he doesn’t look so good today.’
“I don’t want him to be surprised by any of that.”
Floreal wants Harrison to know that only one other woman in NCAA history has done what she’s going to try to do: Win both the 100 and 400 hurdles at nationals.
“I’ve told Kendra that because I don’t want her to get out to Oregon and have somebody ask her, ‘Do you know you’ll be the second woman to ever do it?’” Floreal said. “I’ve told her this is going to be a tough task because those two races are complete opposites. One is long, with pace (400), and the other (100) is fast and explosive.”
This is all pretty heady stuff for a UK program that had been down for years prior to Floreal’s arrival some 18 months ago.
Last year, in Floreal’s first NCAA outdoor meet, Kentucky sent 10 athletes in 11 events.
“I think we’re in a better place than we were last year because the kids are starting to have confidence in themselves,” Floreal said. “That typically takes awhile to foster that self-confidence, and the regional proved that we’re a lot further ahead than we were.
“Sending these kids to battle this week, and knowing they are going to compete hard, and knowing the actually believe they are going to make it to the finals ... man, that’s huge.”