Cal track and field turns up the surprise at NCAA West Prelims

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When asked why he watched something as inexplicable and seemingly pointless as sports, my father once replied simply that it was the only thing on TV that we didn’t already know the ending to. With the exception of the Golden State Warriors and the NBA, it’s difficult to argue with that statement. To watch a sport is to witness shock, and to play one is to paint surprise.

“It’s fish or cut bait, it’s a final examination — whatever you want to call it, it’s win or go home,” Cal track and field director Tony Sandoval summarized. “You never know what’s going to happen — it’s so close, it’s so competitive.”

Cal played its own tune for last week’s NCAA West Prelims last weekend and performed the unexpected, earning eight spots at the NCAA Track & Field Championships in Austin, Texas, sending three more athletes than last season.

Thursday’s field events were the staging ground for what would be a momentous weekend. Camryn Rogers and Silviu Bocancea both ensured a trip to Austin in the women’s and men’s hammer throw, respectively, with Rogers winning the meet.

On the track, many Bears completed their preliminary competitions and moved onto the quarterfinal stage, with the notable exceptions being the distance runners, despite Mina Anglero’s personal best in the 1500 meters. Anglero was agonizingly close to moving onto the quarterfinal, finishing as the best runner not to continue.

Friday saw Cal reach unexpected heights as three more Bears booked places at the NCAA Championships. Iffy Joyner and Paramveer Chohan were both favorites to prolong their seasons in the discus and 400-meter hurdles, and both athletes met those expectations.

Rebecca Croft was not such a favorite. The senior entered the meet ranked 29th in the West in the 800 meters, and she needed to move into the top 12 to go to the national championship.

“I think that it’s been an up and down career for her. Last year, she was hurt for most of the season. It’s been an uphill battle for most of this season, confidence-wise,” Sandoval said of Croft, with whom he works individually. “Her training has gone well the last month or so; I knew it was going to be close.”

That training paid off, as Croft recorded a personal best and turned any prior prediction on its head.

Junior Zion Corrales Nelson finished .01 seconds outside of qualification in the 100-meter dash. With her season on the line, the junior ran a personal best in the 200 meters just an hour and a half later to dramatically set up a quarterfinal opportunity.

Corrales Nelson did not disappoint on Saturday either, sprinting to another personal best on her way to third in her heat and earning a ticket to Austin. Her time of 23.16 seconds in the 200 meters set a Philippines national record.

The women’s 4-x-100 relay team was not so fortunate. After an excellent season that saw the team record a national top-50 time, leadoff runner Deshae Wise suffered a hamstring problem and was forced to withdraw from the meet. Alternate Ezinne Abba slotted into the anchor leg, but the change proved too much, and the Bears were disqualified after failing to complete their baton pass.

“In the heat of competition, she got a little nervous and passed outside the zone,” Sandoval explained. “If they’d gotten a normal pass, I think that 4-x-100 relay team would have gone to nationals.”

Jasher Foster also fell surprisingly short of a spot at Austin. The hurdler was unable to surpass his personal best in the 110-meter hurdles and finished just .02 seconds behind Cal State Northridge’s Bashiru Abdullahi, the 12th and final hurdler to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

Fellow hurdler Misana Viltz would not entertain the same difficulties, automatically qualifying after finishing fourth in his heat. The performance was the culmination of a fantastic weekend for Viltz, who entered the meet seeded 19th and hurdled his way into a ninth-place finish.

The final Bear to punch his ticket to Austin was no stranger to the national stage. Tuomas Kaukolahti qualified for the NCAA Championships for the second consecutive season. The junior from Helsinki, Finland, left nothing to chance, putting his best jump of the night up on his first attempt and ensuring his passage onward.

Few would have expected eight Cal athletes to be on their way to Austin and the NCAA Championships, especially after the team lost top performers McKay Johnson and Lauren Martinez earlier this season, both of whom qualified for national championships last season.

The surprises of the meet cut both ways, with many Bears who could or should have progressed falling short. But Cal benefited from the unexpected, throwing predictions to the wind and paving its own road to Austin.

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