The University of Arizona men’s track team finished with a top-10 finish, and the Arizona and Arizona State women fought to a tie in Oregon with six other schools at 22nd place.
While both results were significant on a team level, it was the amazing distance runner, Lawi Lalang, that stole the show at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships over the weekend.
The native of Kenya closed out his career with the Wildcats by winning a 5K race in a field that included the last three cross country champions: Lalang in 2011, Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka in 2012, and Oregon’s Edward Cheserek this season. The race, which was significant enough to be featured on an ESPN Top-10 Plays segment, was run on Friday in front of a crowd of 10,000.
Lalang’s win in 13:18.36 was his second straight title in the outdoor event and gave him eight national championships to establish a new school record in the sport. He’s accumulated three national outdoor titles, four indoor, and one in cross country to pass Amy Skieresz, who held the school record with seven.
On Saturday, he was edged out of his ninth title when he finished runner-up to Oregon’s Mac Fleet in the men’s 1,500-meter event. But he provided the 11,344 fans on hand for the fourth and final day of the Championships with one of the most thrilling finishes among all the events. And almost accomplished something that has never been experienced at the NCAA Championships.
Lalang came within a split second of winning the event, which would have set up just the first time that any athlete has won both the 5K and 1,500 meters at the same NCAA Championship. Fleet finished in 3:39.09, with Lalang right on his shoulder in a time of 3:39.13. It was so close that he said one of his first thoughts after crossing the finish line was “Let me see the screen.”
But after the race, Lalang said, “No surprises from Mac Fleet. He was predictable and I knew it would come down to the last 80 meters. The last five meters, I thought it could be anybody.
“I came here without a lot of expectations. I told myself I would do my best and whatever it gets me, that’s it. It’s a nice way to finish my career.” He has said that he plans to pursue a pro career.
The men’s team finished in seventh place with a team total of 23.5 points.
Also finishing her career with a flourish was Julie Labonte, who tossed the shot put 56’8″ to secure a fourth-place finish for the Wildcats women’s team. The senior import from Canada earned first-team All-America honors in the event this season, becoming just the third women in school history to accomplish that feat.
And while the Arizona squad will lose Lalang and Labonte to graduation, the title winners for Arizona State will be back for another year. Distance runner Shelby Houlihan and high jumper Bryan McBride are both juniors.
Houlihan set a couple of “firsts” by winning the 1,500-meter run in a time of 4:18.10. The 5’3″ middle-distance runner from Iowa pocketed her first-ever national title, which is also the first title in that event in program history.
“I’m very pleased she was able to execute so well because Shelby loves being a Sun Devil and representing the university,” said women’s distance coach Ryan Cole. “To be the first to win a title is something she’s very proud of.”
Houlihan admitted after the race that the pace was a little slow, and that played to her strength. “I had to deal with a little pushing,” she explains, “but in the last 400 meters, I tucked in and laid it all out there.”
McBride, whose 6’3″ frame towers over his diminutive teammate, set the stage Friday night when he won the high jump with a career-best leap of 7-5 3/4 on his third and final try to also put him at No. 2 at that event in the school record books. He’s also the first ASU high jumper in 37 years to win a national title.
The weather in Eugene was pretty bad that night, but it didn’t seem to bother McBride as he cleared 7-4 1/2 to lead the field after the first jump. “I knew that jump was going to be the jump that decided who was going to win it all,” said the Sandra Day O’Connor High School graduate in reflecting back on the first-round effort. “It was really great to see all the hard work I put in come out when I needed it to.”
The ASU men finished 13th overall.
And for Northern Arizona University, Caleb Hoover finished seventh in the 3000-meter steeplechase to give the Lumberjacks their only All-American honor. The junior, one of three NAU athletes who competed in the finals, clocked a career-best time of 8:43.99.
Eric Heins, the school’s director of track & cross country, was pleased to have three athletes make it to Eugene. Hoover was joined by Deante Kemper and Lauren Stuart.
“It’s really challenging to get to this meet,” he explained. “To walk away with points on the board on the men’s side is an accomplishment. Even though Deante didn’t score, he was there supporting. And Lauren ended her career with the highest national mark she has ever had.
“So that’s all you can ask for.”
(Photo: ASU Athletics)