Dramatic stories written in Birmingham at NCAA indoor championships

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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One thing Cal track and field head coach Tony Sandoval has repeated to his team throughout this season is to “enjoy the process and the journey.”

Sandoval speaks of track as a process, a continual desire to get better. It’s a lesson that many people could, and maybe should, take to heart. The ending of the story is good, but it’s nothing without the story itself.

Stories do end, though, and the NCAA indoor track and field season culminated last weekend at the national championships in Birmingham, Alabama.

Western schools performed well at the meet, as USC and Oregon took second and third, respectively, in the women’s competition, while favorites Arkansas claimed top honors. The men’s competition results were more unexpected, as top-ranked Texas Tech stumbled into sixth place and Stanford represented the Pacific coast with a fourth-place team finish.

The Bears sent three athletes to the Birmingham Crossplex for the NCAA Indoor Championships.

“For the elite athlete, it’s a tremendous opportunity to compete at the highest level,” Sandoval pointed out.

Tyler Brendel opened the meet for Cal, running the 60-meter dash for the heptathlon — a grueling competition with seven different events spread over two days.

Brendel started with good scores in the 60-meter dash and long jump, but low finishes in the shot put and high jump to end Friday’s leg of the heptathlon would damage Brendel’s chances of breaking the school record and condemn him to a finish outside the top eight.

McKay Johnson was the next Bear to take the field, tossing his first shot put throw Friday evening. Each athlete in field events would get three preliminary attempts in their competitions before the top nine would move on and get another three throws to decide their final placements.

With his first two preliminary throws, Johnson cut it closer than a midnight deadline, sitting in 10th and 11th place before launching himself into eighth with his third and final preliminary throw.

Johnson would hold steady at eighth, as would the rest of the field — no placement changes occurred in the next three throws, leaving Johnson as a first-team All-American.

After entering the competition ranked fifth, though, an eighth-place finish will surely be less than satisfactory to Johnson, who also finished eighth at last year’s NCAA indoor championships.

Saturday would not only see Brendel finish the heptathlon but also witness Tuomas Kaukolahti take to the field for the triple jump.

Brendel opened the day with better marks, scoring well in the 60-meter hurdles and pole vault. He’d entered the championships as the 16th seed and last man in, and before the last event of the competition, he was in 15th. After a season in which he has struggled to return from injury, Brendel left it all out on the track, running a personal best in the 1,000-meter and climbing to 14th.

Tuomas Kaukolahti was the third and final athlete to represent Cal in Birmingham, ranked 11th at the start of the triple jump. Faced with the same preliminary structure as his teammate Johnson, Kaukolahti did not cut it as close, jumping a personal best on his second attempt and launching himself into fourth place.

The next four attempts were less dramatic — Kaukolahti would slip to seventh overall, but reeling in All-American honors capped off a great season from the Finnish jumper. Kaukolahti won every meet he competed in, save for the indoor championships, and he will enter the outdoor season as the undisputed best triple jumper on the western seaboard.

The journey is by no means over. All three Cal athletes who competed in Birmingham will likely return for the 2019 outdoor season with new expectations, new goals and new records to break.

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