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2014 Men's Track & Field Preview
On the heels of the season-opening Liberty Kickoff, the entire tenor of the 2014 Liberty men's track & field season changed significantly during the early morning hours of December 7. Freshman sprinter Darius Dixon, who had just made his competitive debut for the Flames two days earlier, was tragically killed in an automobile accident.
"We are aiming to continue our long history of fielding strong track & field teams," noted 28th-year head coach Brant Tolsma. "However, we sense that this year is going to be very different.
"The tragic loss of Darius Dixon on December 7 has had a major impact on our team and our mentality. Recognizing the frailty of life is humbling, but recognizing how dependent we are on God can be empowering.
"In light of this, it's hard for me to make any kind of predictions about what will happen this season. I trust the Lord is going to use our team to accomplish some tremendous things."
The 2014 Flames will aim for their eighth consecutive Big South Triple Crown of cross country, indoor track & field and outdoor track & field conference titles, having already captured the cross country crown in November.
Liberty also hopes to place near the top at the IC4A Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field Championships, after finishing fifth at both meets in 2013.
The Flames will have to do so with a new-look team, following the graduation of a successful senior class. Led by NCAA national qualifiers Ryan Smith and Isaac Wendland, Liberty's seniors scored 112 of the team's 213 points at the 2013 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
Liberty does return four athletes who have competed at the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet during their career, including redshirt sophomore Cody Bingham, seniors Caleb Edmonds and Josh MacDonald and junior Kyle Wheeler.
Additionally, Tolsma observed that "The additions of Messiah transfer Fred Fulton and freshmen Aklesso Agama, Zach Davis and Colin Schultz, along with the return of Tim Abbott and David Scouten from redshirt seasons, should go a long way toward filling the void left by the 2013 graduates."
Liberty scored only eight total points in the 100, 200 and 400-meter dashes at the 2013 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships, and Tolsma believes that the Flames will be challenged to score many points in the sprints again in 2014.
Seniors ConRoy Smith and Tarell Williams will headline a young sprint crew for the Flames this year. Last season, Smith clocked 6.85 seconds in the 60 and 22.05 in the 200 on a flat track before suffering an injury. He bounced back to post times of 10.62 for 100 meters and 21.70 for 200 meters outdoors, finishing eighth in the Big South 100 dash final.
Williams recorded a personal-best 100 dash time of 10.74 seconds a season ago and was a surprise fifth-place finisher in the IC4A 100 final.
The Flames will also be challenged at 400 meters, as a result of Dixon's passing and the off-season surgery of freshman Spencer Jamison, who clocked a time of 48.20 seconds in high school. As a result, Racanelli may be moved up to the 400-meter dash this season.
The Flames' 4 x 400 relay quartet will include a mixture of 100/200-meter sprinters, 800-meter runners along with Tyler Weigandt, who helped Liberty win the 2013 Big South indoor 4 x 400 relay title.
Liberty has not had a representative in the Big South men's 110 hurdles final since 2010, and that drought could continue into 2014. Freshmen Ryan Davis (14.44 in the 110 hurdles) and Blake Kohring (8.27 in the 60 hurdles) have both been sidelined by surgeries.
In their absence, the Flames' top options in the 110 hurdles could be redshirt senior Richard Whitted (15.21 personal best) and decathlete Cody Bingham (15.58).
Andre Washington graduated after winning the 2013 Big South title in the 400 hurdles, and Davis (53.75 personal best) was slated to be Liberty's top 400 hurdler prior to his injury.
Whitted (56.92 personal best) and newcomer Caleb Fraley (40.33 in the 300 hurdles in high school) will get opportunities to run the 400 hurdles this season.
Isaac Wendland enjoyed a storybook senior season in 2013, winning the Big South 800 and 1,500-meter titles and the IC4A 1,500-meter championship before advancing to the NCAA national meet in the 1,500. His absence from the team will certainly be noticed, but the Flames do have some solid options in the mid-distance events.
Junior John Sherret made significant strides in 2013, placing third in the Big South indoor 800 final and dropping his personal-best time to 1:52.81. Meanwhile, Colin Schultz clocked an 800 time of 1:52.77 and won the Nevada state title.
Junior Trevor Hope's indoor 800 time of 1:56.40 last season earned his first IC4A qualification. Senior Jarred Cornfield (1:54.47 personal best) and redshirt sophomore Jacob Onifer (ran 1:55.33 during his redshirt season in 2013) are other options on what Tolsma believes could be a strong 4 x 800 relay team.
Senior Caleb Edmonds focused on the 5K in 2013 but is expected to race more at the 1,500 and mile distances this season. He sped to a 1,500 time of 3:48.32 last season, moving up to fourth on Liberty's all-time list.
Fellow senior and New York native Cornfield has become a regular fixture in Big South men's 1,500 and mile finals, earning a trio of fourth-place finishes. He boasts personal bests of 3:55.45 in the 1,500 and 4:15.33 in the mile and is coming off of his best cross country season, which featured a 13th-place Big South finish.
Despite losing each of the last two Big South men's 10K champions in Ngetich Kipchirchir (2012) and David Ricksecker (2013), Liberty's distance crew should be potent once again in 2014.
Last season, the Flames' distance runners put their stamp on the team's Big South outdoor title with a 1-2-3-4 sweep in the 10K and a 1-2-3-5 finish in the 5K. Seniors Caleb Edmonds and Josh MacDonald and sophomore Jeremie Bourget were part of those impressive front-running performances and are back this season.
Edmonds, who came just 0.68 seconds shy of qualifying for the 2013 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships, won the Big South indoor 3K and outdoor 5K championships a year ago. He also dropped his 5K personal-best time to 13:57.09.
MacDonald's junior season included an IC4A steeplechase title, a Big South indoor 5K championship and his second straight appearance in the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round steeplechase competition. The versatile California native recorded personal-best times of 8:49.14 in the steeplechase, 14:10.33 in the indoor 5K and 29:57.64 in the 10K. He was Liberty's most consistent cross country performer this past fall, placing fourth at the Big South meet and 15th at the NCAA Division I Southeast Regional Cross Country Championships.
Bourget is still seeking his first Big South individual championship, but appears poised to improve upon his 5K personal-best time of 14:29.28 this season. He was the Flames' top finisher at the 2013 Big South Cross Country Championships, coming in third overall.
Other runners who look to build upon solid cross country seasons include All-Big South performers Sam Hibbs (ninth at the Big South meet) and Zach Barker (11th at the Big South meet). Last season, Hibbs placed seventh in the Big South indoor 3K final, while Barker was ninth in the Big South steeplechase.
Junior Kyle Wheeler will lead the way for the Flames' high jumpers for the third straight season. The Texas native has already won three Big South high jump titles, made two NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round appearances and tied the outdoor school record of 7-1.
Sophomore Patrick Donigan was a surprise third-place finisher in the 2013 Big South indoor men's high jump final and boasts a personal best of 6-6.75. Freshman Zach Davis cleared 6-10.75 in high school, placing fourth at the 2013 New Balance Outdoor Nationals. Redshirt junior decathlete Tevan McIntire, who has high jumped 6-4 during his time at Liberty, could also contribute.
The pole vault has traditionally been a big event for the Flames, and Liberty has placed 1-2-3-4 in the Big South outdoor men's pole vault final in each of the last two years. The Flames' pole vault prowess could continue in 2014, as five Liberty vaulters have gone over the 15-foot barrier during their careers.
Redshirt sophomore Cody Bingham was the 2013 Big South indoor and outdoor pole vault champion and qualified for the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet with a 16-4.75 clearance at the Texas Relays. Tolsma believes Bingham has the potential to reach 17 feet this season.
Last season's third (Harrison Allen) and fourth-place (Ken Ritchey) finishers in the Big South outdoor pole vault final each cleared 15-3 in 2013 and will look to challenge the 16-foot plateau in 2014.
In the long jump, the Flames have four competitors with the potential to exceed the 23-foot plateau this season. Redshirt senior Tarell Williams (23-5.25) and Wheeler (23-4) have both already done so in college, although Wheeler will likely focus more on the high jump this season.
Freshman Aklesso Agama reached 23-0 in high school, while senior ConRoy Smith appears set to improve significantly upon his 21-10.75 collegiate best in the event.
Two-time Big South men's triple jump champion Chris Johnson graduated after the 2013 season, but Agama could fill his shoes quite well. Agama triple jumped 48-7.25 at the season-opening Liberty Kickoff, going seven inches longer than Johnson ever reached indoors and stamping himself as a potential conference champion this year.
Graduation also hit Liberty hard in the throws, as Ryan Smith completed his eligibility after an impressive career. He won all eight Big South shot put competitions he entered during his career and threw the shot at the 2013 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
However, the addition of NCAA Division III All-American Fred Fulton and the return of Tim Abbott and David Scouten from redshirt seasons could cushion the blow of Smith's departure.
Fulton, who spent two seasons at Messiah College, was the 2013 NCAA Division III national runner-up in the shot put. His top marks at Messiah included 59-0.25 in the shot put, 156-3 in the discus, 182-1 in the hammer and 54-8.25 in the weight throw.
Fulton has already made an impact at Liberty, earning ECAC Athlete of the Week honors after winning the shot put (57-1.5) and weight throw (57-8.5) at the Liberty Kickoff.
Redshirt sophomore Scouten (53-6.5 shot put personal best), redshirt senior Jacob DeValve (52-0.5 shot put best) and redshirt junior Abbott (49-9.75 shot put best) give the Flames great depth in the shot put, despite the loss of Smith and IC4A qualifier Andrew Woodley, who transferred following the 2013 campaign.
Abbott and Scouten have both thrown over 167 feet in the discus, and Scouten was the 2012 Big South runner-up as a freshman. Meanwhile, Abbott placed seventh in that year's IC4A meet.
Liberty could have three javelin throwers go over 200 feet this season, in junior Steve Feister (203-0 college best), junior Daniel Klase (202-1 college best) and DeValve (196-7 college best). Meanwhile, decathletes Cody Bingham (170-1 college best) and Zach Davis (169-10 high school best) add depth for the Flames.
The hammer will likely be Liberty's weakest throwing event this season, as Scouten could be the Flames' lone competitor with Fulton possibly redshirting outdoors.
After a season in which Liberty uncharacteristically was shut out of the scoring in the Big South decathlon competition, the Flames could be poised for a strong year in the multi events in 2014.
Leading the way is redshirt sophomore Cody Bingham. He posted personal-best scores of 5,027 in the heptathlon and 6,785 in the decathlon a year ago and aims to crack the 7,000-point decathlon barrier in 2014.
Redshirt junior Tevan McIntire will also shoot for 7,000 points this season, as he enters the year with personal bests of 4,877 in the heptathlon and 6,400 in the decathlon.
Liberty has a pair of freshmen training for the decathlon in 2014, in Zach Gilroy and Zach Davis. Gilroy, who scored 6,097 points in the decathlon in high school, is one of the Flames' numerous standouts in the pole vault (14-10.75 personal best).
Davis is learning the multi events for the first time this season, after excelling in several events during his high school years. His top marks at Sparta High School in New Jersey included 6-10.75 in the high jump, 21-6 in the long jump, 45-0.5 in the triple jump and 169-10 in the javelin.
Finally, 2012 Big South decathlon champion Jacob DeValve hopes to stay healthy enough to complete at least one decathlon in 2014.