Top 12 or go home. That’s what the stakes were set at the NCAA West Preliminaries for track and field. In a region loaded with some of the best collegiate track athletes in the country, all of the competitors were in a desperate battle to keep their seasons alive. For many athletes, to move forward to nationals, they would have to perform better than ever before.
Faced with that challenge, Cal track and field put up a number of record performances and will be sending six individuals and a relay team to the national championships.
From Thursday to Saturday, 27 Bears and a relay team competed in the West Preliminaries held in Arkansas with one goal: to place in the top 12. For an individual to advance into the final championships in Eugene, Oregon, all that was required was to earn one of the 12 best marks in his or her particular event.
“I told them that first place or 12th place was the same, as the goal is to qualify for the NCAA finals,” said Tony Sandoval, director of track and field, to Cal Athletics.
Sandoval’s message clearly resonated with the Bears, and ultimately six individuals and a relay team were able to finish in the top 12. First to qualify into the national championships on day one were senior Hammed Suleman and junior Kelsey Santisteban. Suleman, the three-time Pac-12 long jump champion, continued his streak of excellence in the event and placed seventh. Santisteban also earned her spot in nationals in the 10,000 meters, finishing in 11th place.
While Suleman and Santisteban set the tone for the team, day three of the competitions was when the Bears really started to shine. Sophomore Thomas Joyce set a personal record en route to finishing fourth in the 1,500 meters. Redshirt sophomore Jonte Grant also set a personal record in the triple jump, and his 10th-place finish was good enough to qualify.
The other two individuals to qualify were senior Milan Ristic, in the 110-meter hurdles, and redshirt senior Derek White, in the discus. Santisteban, having already qualified for the 10,000 meters, built upon her success by placing seventh in the 5,000 meters, meaning that she will be competing in two events at nationals.
The 4×100-meters relay team, consisting of Dan Davis, Tom Blocker, Dash Oliver and Khalfani Muhammad, also narrowly booked a spot to the national championships. Their time of 39.91 seconds, which equaled a season-best, was good enough for 12th place, just narrowly earning them a shot at the national title. But not everyone was as fortunate. Both Randy Bermea and Nick Ridge suffered heartbreaking finishes, placing 13th in the 400-meter hurdles and high jump, respectively.
“I am, however, heartbroken for those so close at 13th place, ending their season and/or career,” Sandoval said to Cal Athletics. “Rather than ‘March Madness,’ it’s ‘live to run another day.’ ”
After a relatively disappointing display at the Pac-12 championships in the midst of academic commitments, Cal track and field showed a real turnaround at the West Preliminaries. Excelling at the national championships may be the ultimate form of redemption.