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Spire Institute Indoor Facilty, photo courtesy by Spire Institute


For the casual sports fan, the mention of Big East athletics conjures up visions of basketball. But there are other Big East wintertime sports that do very well, thank you. And the hearty track & field enthusiasts who braved the snowy conditions to gather this past weekend at Geneva, Ohio's Spire Institute -- an emerging cathedral for our sport -- were given the opportunity to witness collegiate track & field at its best. And they were treated with several special performances along the way.

The first day of competition allowed two schools to establish significant team leads. On the men's side, the University of South Florida -- bolstered by a 1-3 finish in the pole vault and a 1-3 placing in the long jump -- started Day Two with a 19 point lead in the chase for the team title. The Connecticut women also established a sizeable first day lead. The Huskies women captured the distance medley and a different trio of UConn distance runners grabbed the top three podium spots in the 5000 final -- allowing the Storrs' women's contingent to forge a 19 point lead going into Sunday's final day.

But Sunday's performances demonstrated why the team trophy is never awarded until all the events are completed. Right away, the Connecticut men's squad went to work and quickly overcame USF's first day lead. By Sunday's 4th event, the UConn men had forged into a lead they never relinquished. With broad scoring from many sources, the Huskies finished the day with 142 points to easily outdistance second place Notre Dame for the team title.

In the women's team battle, Notre Dame -- with a strong Day Two performance sparked by Rebecca Tracy's mile victory -- easily coasted to the team title. The Irish's 141 points made the women's team the clear victor, besting the University of Connecticut women's squad by 32 points. Irish Coach Joe Piane was pleased with his team's performance. "I thought the women did a terrific job. We overachieved a little bit," explained Piane. And with a smile, he added, "What a great place to do it -- at your conference meet. We had a lot of good things happen." Tracy -- the Irish's distance ace -- was doubly pleased -- both with her mile win in 4:40.72 and with her team's overall championship. "In the mile we ran a real race. We want out in 70's -- a real honest pace." Commenting on her final 800 in 2:15, Tracy noted, "I didn't realize how much we picked it up. But it was good, it was exciting." Offering a final comment on the team victory, she added, "I am so excited for all of these girls."

The Big East's jewel event proved to be the men's 500. Anticipation ran high as Pittsburgh's Brycen Spratling and Notre Dame's Christopher Giesting -- the major protagonists from last year's Big East smoking 500 -- were back to do battle. As the race began, Giesting -- who had posted the fastest qualifying time in Saturday's preliminary round -- took it out hard and captured the lead as the runners broke for the pole at the 200 meter mark. Spratling -- last year's 500 titlist -- was in flight right behind. On the backstretch, Spratling uncorked a powerful move to grab the lead as the two headed into the far turn. Passing the 400 in 47+ seconds, the pair drove around the final curve. Giesting made a valiant charge down the final straightaway, but was unable to overcome the Pitt junior who hit the line in a world leading time of 1:00.37. After the race, Spratling provided his insight on his special performance. "For me, it [Giesting's early lead] wasn't a very big deal. I'm not used to getting to the break first," explained Spratling. But with a smile he added, "It did scare me a little bit though. But I am pretty confident in my kick. I feel it is one of the best in the country." Spratling's eye-popping time is the fastest 500 mark since 1992 and ranks as the #3 all-time global performance. The runner-up time of 1:00.58 for Giesting -- who pushed Spratling hard over the final furlong -- proved be the 6th fastest 500 ever run and the second fastest ever run by a collegian, bettered only to the man who beat him this day. So what might be Spratling's best outdoor event? "My best event outdoors is still the 400,"offered the meet's Most Valuable Men's Track Performer. "But if comes down to do it, I think I can also do the 800. It will take me a while to figure out what I'm best at."

In the men's 400, Notre Dame's Patrick Feeney found the Spire's 300 unbanked oval to his liking as he easily captured the Big East 400 crown. His sparkling time of 46.12 took down the 27 year old conference's championship record mark of 46.44 posted by Edwin Modibedi.

As is often the case when the Big East teams tangle, highly competitive finishes added zest to the championship races. In the women's 4 x 800, Notre Dame's Tracy doubled back to anchor the Irish quartet and found herself in a last lap struggle with Villanova's Emily Lipari -- who had early won the Big East 1000 title. With Tracy in the lead and in control at the bell, Lipari stalked her adversary. A big backstretch move by Lipari was effectively thwarted by the Notre Dame star and race looked to be Tracy's as she pulled away from her Wildcat opponent. But Lipari re-grouped. Her second surge coming off the final curve was just enough to nip Tracy at the line by .09 seconds.

Cincinnati's Mackenzie Fields turned in a stellar performance in the women's pole vault. After capturing the Big East title with a 13' 3" clearance, the Bearcat senior went after greater heights. On her third attempt, she cleared 14' 0" [4.25 meters] to give her the Big East meet championship record and the sixth best collegiate vault of the year. Fields three efforts at 14'2" -- while good attempts -- were unsuccessful. "I was getting a little tired. But I'll get it next time," a happy Fields offered.
It seemed appropriate that the day would end with one final record-setting performance. A stirring 45.9 anchor leg by 200 meter champion Carvin Nkanata iced Pitt's impressive win in the men's 4 x 400 relay. The Panthers' winning time of 3:07.32 easily bested the Big East championship record of 3:10.20 set by Rutgers just last year.

While they seldom churn out a consistent stream of leading marks, Division I conference meets -- like the Big East Indoor Championships -- are nonetheless pinnacle events in and of themselves. They are always spiced with fierce competition and -- on occasion -- produce the type of scintillating performance like this year's Spratling/Giesting 500 dual. But -- in addition -- these collegiate meets often perform an ancillary function as well. They serve as a sort of movie trailer for our sport -- giving us a glimpse of track & field's coming attractions. Don't be surprised if -- in the not-too-distant future -- Brycen Spratling or Christopher Giesting -- or some other Big East athlete -- shines later on a bigger stage. Stay alert -- they will be coming soon to a track & field venue near you.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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