The SEC Indoor (and Outdoor) Championship is one of the best meets in the world. Due to the nature of the NCAA, amateurism, and the cornucopia of talent in the States, track athletes usually train through college before going professional. Which means the SEC produces (and attracts) the best athletes in the world.
That sets the bar pretty high for Vanderbilt as they are a women’s only team with limited resources, and even coaching staff. However, they have excelled with focusing on three events and becoming a boutique program- specifically middle distance, pole vault, and and long sprints.
Head Coach Steve Keith has always produced good distance runners in XC, but that has not always translated to Indoor Track and Field as the longer distances are limited. But, Keith has produced very good milers and 800m runners. This year is no different.
The Commodores have two 800m runners in the top 13- Reagan Bustamante and Haley Walker. Bustamante, owner of the most fun name to say on the team, is a Senior and ranked 9th. She’s within .05 seconds of the 7th spot. The 800m tends to be grouped by athletes of 3-4. The top three are all withing .1 of a second, the next three to four are about a 1.5 second slower and grouped similarly, so on and so forth.
Haley Walker is rated 13th at 2:10.69. That’s .5 off the 12th seeded runner and .5 ahead of the 14th. Things loosen up in the bunch after the top 10.
This is important because the 800m has the most variance of any qualifying race. The finals might be more jockeying, but to qualify, heat winners and the next four times. So if you can’t finish first, you better run one of the four fastest remaining times out of 30+ runners.
If history says anything, Keith has trained his distance runners to peak at the Championships, specifically two as talented and consistent as Bustamante and Walker.
Reigning SEC Indoor Champion Kristen Denk has been particularly stale this indoor season. It is an Olympic year, so her training won’t really kick in until the Outdoor season starts, however, now would be a good time to match last year’s personal best of 14’. She has only jumped 13’3” this year, making her the 12th best vaulter in the field.
But PV is finicky. It’s not long sprints or middle distance where you can predict a fairly straight line of improved performance. A vaulter could have a weird step, not enough tape on the pole, or just not like the way the runway interacts with the rest of the facility. When you’re flinging your body through the air at a story and a half, it’s worth taking everything into consideration.
It’s worth nothing that Denk would rank 5th in the SEC with last year’s jump. So she has her hands full in the competition. But she is a gamer, so it will be interesting to see how she performs.
She is flanked by a slew of other Commodore Vaulters, the second best, Margaret Oligner. Olinger has vaulter 13’2.5” this Indoor season. She is a senior, and her progress has been slow but steady. She is coming into her own at the right time in her career. There is more out there for her, but it would be the first time she’s cleared those heights in competition.
What’s the difference between Long Sprints and Middle Distance? You puke more in Middle Distance.
Really its a nebulous area that incorporates everything from the 200m to the 1500m. It’s a spectrum that utilizes pure speed and aerobic endurance.
Donnie Young has developed solid young 200m runners, but they will not be competitive at the SEC. He has also produced very strong 400m runners. One is Taiya Shelby.
Shelby is a Sophomore who has run 54.22 and is seeded 21st in the conference. But the margins in the 400m are razor thin. The difference between 21st and 11th is a second. Most NCAA sprinters won’t PR by a second, but they will compete with the athletes around them. It’s human nature. A slower runner will be much faster if they get into a heat that is faster, and it won’t be hard for them to do so.
Shelby most likely won’t qualify for the finals, but she is the 21st best runner in the SEC. It’d be a boon if she cracked the top 15.
The Bell Cow for this squad is the Distance Medley Relay. They are 3rd in the SEC. It is a combination of the 400m, 800m, 1200m, and 1600m. This is where Vanderbilt excels. They specialize in each of these distances and combine them to become a strong team. Outside of Denk, the DMR has the best chance to finish highest at the Championship.
You can follow the action Thursday, Friday, and Saturday here.