‘Iron becomes steel’: Cal aims high at MPSF Championships

Athlete competes in track and field competition.
Aditi Raghunath /File

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You’ve been nervous before. It’s a deep, natural emotion, one that extends into our very bones. It’s the calm before the storm, the silence before lightning strikes; we all feel that same tightness: the moment before an interview, the seconds that tick by as an exam is passed out, the long walk past that certain someone who may or may not feel the same about you.

That is exactly how every track and field team participating in the MPSF Championships has felt like in the week leading up to the competition at Dempsey Indoor.

“We’re excited,” said head coach Tony Sandoval. “Myself, I have difficulty the night before we travel. I’ve got all the things going on and I’m excited with the whole process.”

There’s a lot to be nervous about. The Bears are going to the MPSF Championships with two principal goals.

“We certainly want to be … in the top five,” Sandoval said. “We just want our people to compete well. There’s a number of people that are close to NCAAs.”

Individually, the Bears enter this weekend with just two athletes ranking in the top 16 who will be selected for the NCAA Indoor Championship. Tuomas Kaukolahti represents Cal in the triple jump, while McKay Johnson is eighth nationally in the shot put. Of those two, McKay is the only real lock — Kaukolahti will need to improve to keep his qualification spot.

Camryn Rogers is another athlete on the bubble, her weight throw still a third of a meter outside of the top 16. She will surely need to throw further to surpass other athletes who are surging toward qualification.

Hurdlers Jasher Foster and Misana Viltz will need to shave nearly a quarter of a second off their times to compete nationally, though each have the ability to take top honors at the MPSF Championships. Paramveer Chohan opened his season by winning the 200-meter and 400-meter dash at the UW Invitational, and he could also leave this weekend with a medal around his neck.

Experience may be a real concern, though. “The younger athletes that haven’t been here, they don’t know. They’re in a city without a road map. You’re looking to be optimistic and positive, but they’re going to make mistakes,” Sandoval said. Underclassmen Noelle Schiller, Sydney Reid and Jalyn Jackson will all compete in the long jump with high expectations, but it remains to be seen how they will fare in a championship environment.

One athlete with plenty of experience is Garrett Corcoran. The redshirt senior qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships two years ago but has opened this season a bit slower. His season’s best in the mile is more than six seconds outside of the national top 16, but his personal record is only a second behind that mark.

As a team, Cal is taking 45 athletes to compete in a deep field. West Coast track and field teams are traditionally some of the best in the nation. On the women’s side, USC and Oregon rank second and third nationally, while Cal is ranked 111th. The women’s team also suffered a massive loss, as All-American pole vaulter Lauren Martinez suffered a stress fracture in her foot and will miss the rest of the season.

Cal’s men are ranked significantly higher, but they still only find themselves at 58th, according to the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. MPSF rivals USC, Oregon, Stanford and BYU all rank in the top 20.

Those are by no means an exact prediction of the results at the MPSF Championships — the Bears have the 10th best MPSF women’s team and rank eighth on the men’s side, placing them closer to Sandoval’s goal of top-five team finishes.

Additionally, stronger teams, such as USC and Oregon, who have legitimate shots at qualifying and competing at the NCAA Indoor Championships may choose to rest their best runners who have already qualified in their event, creating opportunities for Cal athletes.

Cal track and field may also be better than its rankings — many of the Bears have only participated in only one meet, two at the most. There has been no opportunity to improve on the grand stage that is an official competition.

But none of that is a given — “Everybody is coming with their A game,” Sandoval said. “And we need to as well.”

To bring that A game, the Bears will need to improve in some key areas. Cal’s jumps and throws teams are elite and will be competitive, and their sprints team brings proven ability in the form of Diab Davis, Zion Corrales Nelson and Jackie Patterson, among others. The distance team, though, will have to step up its game.

Cal was badly beaten in distance races at last year’s Pac-12 outdoor championships, and the Bears will have to reverse their fortunes to find success this weekend. The relays will be another key competition. The 4×400-meter relay and distance medley relay will be competitive and carry the potential to both add points for Cal and, simultaneously, take points from opponents. These events may swing the meet in or out of Cal’s favor.

Ultimately it comes down to the athletes and what they have done: “Your preparation doesn’t happen in one week — it’s six months, physically and also mentally,” Sandoval said.

“This is what we live for: We live for championship situations,” the coach said. That nervousness will persist, both in the coaches and in the athletes, until the starting gun goes off, until a jumper makes their leap or a thrower hurls their weight, and it will stay until finish lines are crossed and distances are etched in the sand.

Ultimately though, this meet is the fire in which victors will be forged.

“You take iron,” Sandoval added metaphorically, “You get out all the impurities, and iron becomes steel.”

Jasper Sundeen covers track and field. Contact him at [email protected].