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Maryland track & field is building, and the NCAA Championships are the next step

The Terps have doubled their finalist count from last year, and they’re in position to keep making strides forward.

Track & field
High jumper Sam Shoultz at the Kehoe Twilight Meet.
Photo by Maryland Athletics

The University of Maryland has no teams left fighting for national championships. Softball season ended in the Big Ten tournament in mid-May. Baseball season ended when the Terps missed the conference tournament the following week. Lacrosse season came to a close over Memorial Day weekend, with both the men’s and women’s teams’ title defenses screeching to a halt in the Final Four.

But the NCAA Track and Field Championships are this week, and the door is wide open to close the spring sports season with a highlight.

Maryland sent nine individual athletes to the NCAA East Regional in Tampa from May 24-26. Six of those Terps placed in the top 12 in their event, which earns them a trip to this week’s NCAAs in Eugene, Oregon. Competition starts Wednesday and concludes Saturday. It took drama and some personal bests for all of these Terps to make it, but that’s what happened.

“I say to kids all the time, ‘If you set the bar high and you don’t get it, that’s OK because you gave it everything you have and no consolation,’” head coach Andrew Valmon said. “So I think they’ve realized—at least this year—it’s going to take spectacular.”

For the individuals, making nationals is a career highlight. For the Terps, sending six athletes is a monumental step in building a program.

Maryland’s track and field prowess has been uninspiring for decades. The men’s squad was an ACC powerhouse in the 1960s and 70s, but not only have the Terps not won their conference since 1981, they haven’t finished better than fifth since 1989. They’ve finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships four times, finishing as high as eighth. The women’s team was established in 1974 and has never won its conference or finished better than 21st at nationals.

Valmon, a two-time Olympian who won gold in the 4x400-meter relay in Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992, has been the Terps’ coach since 2004. In 2012, he served as the head coach of the U.S. track & field team at the London Olympics; Americans won 29 medals, including nine golds, at those games. But building Maryland’s program has proven difficult, largely because of factors outside of his control.

Perhaps the most notable obstacle has been the lack of financial stability. Maryland cut its men’s cross country and indoor teams in 2012; the outdoor team had to raise $888,000 to remain afloat. The cuts took the winter season away from male athletes in all running and jumping events (throwers are only part of the outdoor season), and cross country’s overlap with distance running made recruiting tough in that area as well. All three women’s seasons are still intact, but Maryland hasn’t threatened national relevance in any of them.

Still, Valmon has coached dozens of All-Americans and sent athletes to nationals nearly every year. After three Terps made it to NCAAs in 2017—discus thrower Greg Thompson, sprinter Micha Powell and hurdler Lisa Meneau—Valmon’s goal for this season was to double that number. Despite graduating Powell and Meneau, the Terps did just that, sending two men and four women to Eugene.

Thompson, a junior from London, is now the No. 4-ranked men’s discus thrower in Division I. He placed second in the regional with a 59.24-meter throw, and his season high is 61.29 meters. He says he doesn’t look at the rankings or get nervous about competing, but that he’s eager to end the season on a high note.

“I know I want to win. That’s kind of the agenda—why else would you be there if you’re ranked top-five?” Thompson said.

“I know I’ve got a lot more to produce this season. This season has been successful, it’s been consistent, but I’m not exactly satisfied with it. … So for me the mindset is just go and apply, go and let the hard work pay off, and hopefully that produces the number one spot.”

As the only repeat finalist, Thompson has been a de facto leader on a team with no other experience on that stage.

“I think I just bring a level head to the table, just as far as a competition mindset and a championship mindset,” Thompson said. “I am quite fortunate that the team has believed in me and looked to me for that kind of assumed position at times, maybe not through direct conversation but just kind of through action. It’s been nice to know that I’m a role model of sorts.”

Greg Thompson track & field
Thompson at the 2017 Big Ten Championships.
Photo by Maryland Athletics

Two of Thompson’s fellow throwers—seniors Claudia Ababio and Emma O’Hara—will be joining him. Ababio made regionals in three events and made nationals in discus, although she said she thought her chances were better in the hammer throw and she set a personal record in shot put in regional competition. O’Hara was the 12th and last hammer thrower to qualify, and it was a dramatic finish. After two poor throws, the senior from Abingdon, England, recorded a 60.42-meter toss to take the lead entering the final flight. She needed to beat five of the remaining 16 competitors—Ababio included—and did just that.

“We were expecting what I threw to be completely safe and completely fine, because 60 meters has never not made it to nationals,” O’Hara said. “But then in the final flight, the girls came ready to throw. So it was really nerve-wracking in the final round. … It literally came down to the last throw and it was terrifying.”

Maryland’s other three national finalists are jumpers. Sophomore Sam Shoultz is ranked in a tie for sixth in the men’s high jump, while sophomore Dallyssa Huggins took fifth in the high jump and a personal best from junior Jewel Smith slotted her eighth in the long jump. Just missing out were seniors Peyton Wade (18th in the high jump) and Kayla Richardson (16th in the long jump) and freshman Xahria Santiago (13th in the 400-meter hurdles).

Shoultz is the only newcomer in the group of six, as he transferred from Pima Community College in Arizona after winning the NJCAA indoor and outdoor national titles last season. He came from the West Coast to Maryland for its business school, although he has since switched his major to economics. At least with regard to his high jumping, though, everything has gone according to plan.

“[Reaching nationals] was definitely a goal I had coming into this season, and I was looking forward to training with new people and getting to that level,” Shoultz said.

It’s a geographically diverse group of finalists. Three of Maryland’s nine international athletes are in the finals, including the two throwers from England. (O’Hara’s and Thompson’s bios on Maryland’s website list their nicknames as “Irish Thunder” and “Afro Thunder,” respectively. I was disappointed to find out there was no connection between them and neither nickname is widely used.) Huggins is one of five female Ontario natives on the team. Shoultz is from Arizona. Ababio—from Clarksburg, Maryland—and Smith—Chesapeake, Virginia—are the only two finalists from the East Coast, which still produces the majority of Maryland’s roster overall.

These six also took completely different paths to this place. It took Ababio until her senior year to get over the hump. Same with O’Hara, who transferred to Maryland after two years at St. Francis (PA), then overcame an admittedly difficult junior season to close her career with a nationals appearance. Then there’s Shoultz, the junior college transfer making an immediate impact. Thompson is at his second nationals and will be expected to make it for a third time next year. Smith and Huggins will have one and two more cracks, respectively, at making it back to this stage.

But the circumstances won’t matter in Eugene. It’ll be all about the team.

That’s college track and field in a nutshell. Men and women from near and far converge on one campus. Some run, some jump, some throw, and some do combinations of all those things. But all 65 wear the same uniform, and thus will strive together toward a common goal.

It’s the coach’s job, then, to manage a team made up of so many individuals. Valmon—whose son Travis is both a sprinter and a walk-on guard on the basketball team—explains his mission as “to try to get the kids to the line and get them in one piece.” Each discipline has its own coach to help athletes hone their skills; the throwers all credit Travis Coleman, hired in fall 2017, with their successful springs.

Team success in track and field is merely a byproduct of individual success. The more players a school sends to an event, the more points it has the chance to rack up. Maryland doubling its number of finalists is significant, but higher finishes in the conference won’t come without more depth. The Terps finished last out of 13 teams in total points on the men’s side and 11th on the women’s side at the Big Ten championships. While Shoultz and Thompson starred in their events, finishing second and fourth, respectively, Maryland only recorded points (which come from top-eight finishes) in two of the other 19 men’s events. The women earned points from eight different sources but had only one top-four finish.

But six of the nine regional participants making nationals—and the other three all finishing top-18 out of 48 athletes in their events—is nice progress. While none of the four finalists on the women’s side are expected to finish top-eight this week, Shoultz and Thompson are serious threats to put points on the board in their events. That’d be noteworthy, as the Terps haven’t scored a point in men’s nationals since 2006.

No matter what happens in Oregon, though, Maryland will take plenty of confidence into next season. With four of the six finalists returning, the core will be in place to bring a greater contingency this time next year.

“Next year, we’re going to set some lofty goals. Let’s double again,” Valmon said. “Maybe eight ladies is a lot, but so what? Let’s go with it, and double the men as well. I think we can actually do that.”

It hasn’t been easy to build a nationally competitive track and field program in College Park. But top talent draws more top talent, and the Terps feel like they’re on their way to new heights.

“We have a lot of young kids that have big goals, and they’re all very mature for their age, and I think the program’s just going to keep getting better and better,” Shoultz said. “As our marks improve, we’ll be able to recruit more people, so I’m really looking forward to the growth of this team.”