ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Stanford won a national championship in the men's distance medley relay by living up to the mantra that was one constant in each Stanford performance at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships on Friday night: No fear.
Making bold moves in every race, no matter how heralded the opponent, was not only the theme for Stanford on this night, but has been the overriding message in Chris Miltenberg’s two years as coach.
Be bold, be strong, be awesome!
It was as evident in the Cardinal’s dominating victory in the DMR as it was in its other three events on Day One of the meet at Albuquerque Convention Center: Stanford, in every case, went for the win.
The results were so successful that despite having athletes in only two events for each men and women, the Cardinal women finished the night in first with 22 points and the men were third with 14. Last year, Stanford finished this meet scoreless for the women and with seven points for the men.
“We came ready to compete,” said Miltenberg, Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field. “To me, that’s such a statement about the culture of our program.”
With a team of Marco Bertolotti, Steven Solomon, Luke Lefebure, and Michael Atchoo, Stanford won the men’s DMR for the fourth time in history, completing the journey in 9:37.63.
The Cardinal was second in the women's DMR, Aisling Cuffe and Kathy Kroeger were second and third in the women’s 5,000 meters, and Joe Rosa was fifth in the men’s 5,000.
It had been two years since pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi gave Stanford it last indoor title. For the men, three years had passed since Elliott Heath’s blazing kick won the 3,000 in 2011. But the men’s DMR changed all that.
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Stanford entered the men’s DMR with the fourth-fastest qualifying time in the field. But, as leadoff Bertolotti noted afterward, “That doesn’t mean anything here.”
The plan was this: get out quickly, get as close to the front as possible, and give the runners on the back end as much free track as possible. The danger in the DMR, especially on the 200-meter banked track in Albuquerque, is to avoid traffic and congestion. Trying to get around runners in tight quarters can lead to trouble or just slow you down. Avoid it if you can.
Bertolotti, running the opening leg of 1,200, took that to heart.
“I knew exactly what I had to do and that was to hand us off in good position,”Bertolotti said. “The whole race was about staying really calm and in perfect position, and making sure I used all my energy for the right purposes.”
For four laps of six-lap odyssey, Bertolotti was fourth in the 12th-team field, just off the shoulder of third-place Indiana and step or two behind Villanova and Columbia. But on the backstretch of his final lap, Bertolotti zoomed to the outside, using every inch of the 60-meter straightaway, and into second.
With Steven Solomon, the Australian 2012 Olympic 400 finalist, ready to take the baton, Bertolotti’s had virtually put Stanford in front.
“I knew if I did my job, we could win the race,” said Bertolotti, who clocked 2:58.60.
Sure enough, Solomon seized the lead on his first steps and ripped his two-lap 400 in 45.75, extending the margin the whole way.
“I just kept digging and digging,” said Solomon, who qualified for the 400 as an individual, but chose instead to stay fresh for the relay. “You kind of hit a new pain barrier when you’ve got the team behind you. I just did what I needed to do, put my foot down and never looked back.”
Lefebure, running the 800 leg, didn’t expect this – a huge lead. He thought he would be ready for a duel when he got the baton. Not so.
“That’s not really a position that I’m familiar with, running from the front,” Lefebure said. “The goal was to stay relaxed the first 400. I know I’ve been finishing well all season, so I knew I could rely on that.”
Lefebure indeed stayed calm. But he did more than hold the lead, he extended it to almost unreachable margin by running 1:49.30, the second-fastest 800 split in the race. That left Atchoo, the Stanford indoor mile record holder, with the opportunity to carry the baton home for the final eight laps.
Only Columbia seemed to be anywhere close to making a move. And with five laps left, Columbia tried, pushing forward to within three seconds of the lonely Atchoo, but he couldn’t maintain the surge. With four laps to go, Atchoo’s lead was 3 ½ seconds, with three to go it was 4 ½. With two left it was five.
“I wasn’t expecting to stay in the lead,” Atchoo said. “The whole time, I was ready for someone to come up on me. Mentally, I was ready to respond to it.”
Atchoo crossed the line with a primeval scream and a look of utter satisfaction mixed with disbelief. A year ago, he anchored Stanford to eighth in this same race.
“It doesn’t feel real now,” Atchoo said. “It’s awesome. This is what I’ve been wanting since I’ve been here. I’ve just wanted to win a DMR.”
His 1,600 split was a solid 4:03.98. His pace was so controlled and relaxed that he knew if a runner tried to catch him, Atchoo knew he had saved enough for a decisive countermove. But he also left it all out on the track, or, after the race, in several garbage cans alongside it. Second place Oregon finished nearly three seconds back.
“Each guy put our team in the best spot we had to be in,” Atchoo said. “It was my job not to screw it up, which was probably the easiest job of all.”
The last Stanford DMR to win was the 2007 team of Garrett Heath, Zach Chandy, Michael Garcia, and Russell Brown. Heath, now living and training in Albuquerque as one of the top distance runners in the country, thoroughly enjoyed the victory as he watched from the stands on Friday.
“The one scenario we didn’t talk about with Mike was what to do if you’re getting it in the lead,” Miltenberg said. “We didn’t envision it. But the biggest thing was, we were decisive from the beginning.”
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The Stanford women were decisive as well, in a couple of ways. First, 800 contender Justine Fedronic, who knew she would be running in her final collegiate race (she is out of outdoor eligibility) chose to bypass the individual race for the team DMR. Sophomores Amy Weissenbach and Claudia Saunders, two other 800 individual qualifiers, selflessly followed their close friend in making their own decisions.
With such emotional investment, second place was “bittersweet,” in Miltenberg’s words, especially as Fedronic was overtaken for the lead on the final lap by Arkansas’ Dominique Scott. Arkansas won in 11:05.83 to Stanford’s 11:08.28.
On the opening leg, Weissenbach (1,200; 3:25.66) surged from third to first on the backstretch of the penultimate lap and Kristyn Williams (400, 53.56) extended it further. Saunders ran a solid 800 (2:06.18), and on her final lap, had held off an Arkansas attempt to pass.
However, Arkansas now was in prime position, with the opportunity to pace off Fedronic, let her do all the work, in Albuquerque’s 5,000-foot altitude, and kick past when the opportunity arose. Fedronic slowed to try to allow Arkansas to move ahead and switch the balance of power, but Scott did not bite. Scott finally surged with 200 to go and Fedronic was unable to respond.
“All four legs ran great races in the situation they were in,” Miltenberg said. “I don’t think we could have run any of those legs any differently. The way it played out, Justine got set up. If the tables were turned, Justine could put the lights out on anybody in that situation. Running from the front in altitude like that is tough. I couldn’t be more proud of Justine. She hung tough, she kept her cool.”
Fedronic was understandably down after the race, but Miltenberg tried to assure her that she had no reason to be.
“Now, we’re at a spot where second in the NCAA’s is disappointing,” he said. “I think that says so much for Justine’s perseverance and her belief in herself and where she wanted to go. The perspective will come tomorrow. She’ll have a chance to see the whole picture and what she’s done for the program and for me. I couldn’t have asked for any more.”
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Kathy Kroeger extended her lengthy list of All-America honors to 10 in the women’s 5,000. What’s even more remarkable for the fifth-year senior in her final collegiate meet, is that Friday’s third place was her highest national finish.
Kroeger was beaming afterward, partly with an understanding of how far she has come in the last year. She suffered from injuries that limited her during the 2013 indoor and outdoor seasons. Because she had exhausted her eligibility in cross country, Kroeger had no meaningful competitions since winning the 2012 Pac-12 cross country title.
Kroeger and Cuffe, who succeeded Kroeger as the queen of Pac-12 cross country, were prime examples of Stanford’s No Fear factor. Taking on Dartmouth’s Abbey D’Agostino, the winner of five previous NCAA individual titles, Kroeger and Cuffe were unwilling to concede anything.
For most of the race, they stayed together and moved slowly and patiently up the pack. The pace slowed during the middle, but with a mile to go, five runners had separated themselves, with Kroeger and Cuffe at the end of it.
“We were trying to stay relaxed in the first half and cover every move, and not give up anything to anyone,” Kroeger said. “Just keep our eyes up and stay with the pack as it moved forward. If we did that, people would fall back.”
With three laps to, Kroeger made a move into lane two and drew up to D’Agostino’s shoulder. At the bell, the Stanford runners were side by side just behind the Dartmouth runner. This time, Cuffe pushed hard on the backstretch, but D’Agostino was able to mount a strong enough kick to leave the Stanford runners behind, though they remained firmly in second and third. No two Stanford women ever finished so high in the same event at indoor nationals.
D’Agostino earned her sixth NCAA title, running 16:20.39, followed by Cuffe in 16:22.48 and Kroeger in 16:23.34.
“It’s such a blessing to be here,” Kroeger said. “To have made it here and be healthy and racing with Aisling and our other teammates, I’m just really thankful to be part of it.”
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The women’s race came immediately after the men’s 5,000, giving Cuffe some added incentive. She had a running joke with Joe Rosa’s twin brother Jim about who could finish higher in cross country races. At the NCAA cross country championships, Cuffe was fourth in the women’s race and Rosa fifth in the men’s.
Twin or not, Cuffe had to beat another Rosa. Actually, Joe did too. Shortly after the race, Joe Rosa said with a smile, “I’m happy I tied Jim’s national finish. Now, he can’t hold that over me anymore.”
Joe Rosa lived Miltenberg’s “no fear” mantra to perfection, even if it cost him. And, it ultimately did. Rosa easily could have finished third had he been more conservative in the final laps. Instead, he went for the win, even against the likes of reigning NCAA cross country champion Edward Cheserek of Oregon and Arizona’s Lawi Lalang, an eight-time NCAA champ who was attempting to win an unprecedented three distance titles at this meet.
Rosa finished fifth, and was ecstatic.
Rosa moved into a six-man chase pack behind the two Kenyans in the latter stages of the race and, with three laps to go, swung outside to pass four runners and move into third. The leader Lalang, and Cheserek, had not yet started their kicks, and remained unsuspecting as Rosa began to bear down on them, pulling within three seconds with two laps to go.
“I thought third was wide open,” Rosa said. “Anyone could be third. I don’t think anybody’s going to be running with Lawi or Ches, but if you get in a race like that and you can see them in front of you, you’re not going to tell yourself, Oh, I can’t run with them. So, I saw them, I looked up at them, and I went.”
Rosa tried to sustain the pace, even as the Kenyans began their surge. Rosa was passed by three runners on the final lap, but mustered a final push and got one place back in the final 20 meters.
Cheserek, the freshman, outkicked Lalang to win the apparent changing-of-the-guard race in 13:46.67, with Rosa fifth in 13:55.84, and Erik Olson, who struggled some with the altitude, in 12th at 14:34.40.
“I might have paid a little bit going after them,” Rosa said. “Those guys behind me were able to sit and outkick me. But I gave it everything I had and I’m really pumped.”
The same could be said for Stanford, a team that, like Rosa, deserved to feel “really pumped,” Friday night.
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Winners and Stanford results in events Stanford competed:
Team scores - 1, Oregon 24; 2, Arizona 16; 3, Stanford 14.
5,000 - 1, Edward Cheserek (Oregon) 13:46.67. Stanford: 5, Joe Rosa 13:55.84; 12, Erik Olson 14:34.40.
Distance medley relay -- 1, Stanford (Marco Bertolotti, Steven Solomon, Luke Lefebure, Michael Atchoo) 9:37.63.
Team scores - 1, Stanford 22; 2, Florida 19; 3, Texas A&M 16.
5,000 - 1, Abbey D'Agostino (Dartmouth) 16:20.39; 2, Aisling Cuffe (Stanford) 16:22.48; 3, Kathy Kroeger 16:23.34.
Distance medley relay -- 1, Arkansas 11:05.83; 2, Stanford (Amy Weissenbach, Kristyn Williams, Claudia Saunders, Justine Fedronic) 11:08.28.