Cal track and field adds another strong chapter to Sandoval era

Alex Turney/Staff

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Behind a pack of four veteran runners at the 120th annual Big Meet, Cal sophomore Thomas Joyce entered the final 200 meters of the 1500-meter run already performing beyond expectations.

Joyce’s fifth-place spot heading into that final stretch put him immediately behind nationally ranked 1500-meter runners such as No. 8 Tyler Stutzman and No. 12 Michael Atchoo, setting the sophomore up to easily beat his 2013 personal best of 3:50.31. Yet, as he rounded that final half lap in this year’s Big Meet against Stanford, all spectators could do was stare as he outstripped every prediction — and competitor — to steal the event title by .09 seconds.

Though Joyce’s first-place finish represented only one of the Bears’ 23 victories that weekend, it would remain in the memory of Cal track and field history as one of this season’s landmark upsets. The win not only helped the Bears sweep the Big Meet for the first time since 2000, but it also spoke to the possibility of a new crop of athletes to watch behind the team’s more experienced contributors.

“I think Joyce’s upset victory was the exclamation point on the day,” said director of track and field Tony Sandoval to Cal Athletics after this year’s Big Meet. “It is one of (Stanford’s) best events, and they have two nationally ranked 1500-meter runners. They were targeting to try to beat Jordan (Locklear), thinking he was the one. And Thomas — who did this last week as a matter of fact — sprinted past both of them, and that was pretty special.”

At the beginning of the season, Cal’s upperclassmen headlined the leaderboards. In the Cherry Silver Invitational, redshirt senior Hammed Suleman took home the long jump title with a mark of 7.70 meters. The result eventually qualified for Suleman for the NCAA Indoor Championships.

The next qualifier for the NCAAs was also a well-known name in the world of Cal track and field. At the Husky Indoor Classic, junior Chioma Amaechi emerged with the only two wins of the weekend for the women’s squad. Over the course of the meet, she set a new school record of 21.75 meters in the weightthrow and set a career best with a shot put of 52-11.50. Her performance in the weight throw was good enough to qualify the junior for NCAA Indoor Championship play.

But after a successful start to the season — which included a men’s team victory at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships — Cal’s upperclassmen suffered a disappointing showing at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Only senior Milan Ristic was able to earn points for his team after placing sixth in the 60-meter hurdles, while Suleman and Amaechi faltered in their respective events.

Arguably, it wasn’t until the Bears’ tri-meet with Virginia and Michigan that the team would showcase it’s overall depth. The meet, designed to pit some of the nation’s top public universities against one another, saw a resounding victory for the men’s squad. It was also at this meet that the Joyce finished first in the 1500 meter with a mark of 3:45.31 — his personal best at the time.

Cal’s performance in the tri-meet foreshadowed its historic sweep in the Big Meet, as well as a solid postseason performance from a variety of its team members. The Bears sent six individuals and one relay team to the NCAA national championships, and several athletes earned personal bests in their respective events.

While only Joyce would advance to the finals of his event in the national championships — edging into the last qualifying spot by 0.02 seconds — the impressive personal marks showcased in those final weeks signaled both promise and uncertainty. With the departure of Suleman and Ristic, the Bears will have to look to new faces such as Joyce to lead the fleet into 2015.

Contact Dani Jo Coony at [email protected].