By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
A year after sweeping indoor and outdoor GPAC titles, the Concordia University men’s track and field team isn’t resting on the laurels of the program’s first-ever conference championships. Some accomplished stalwarts such as Jonathon Becker, John Cartier, Carson Farr and Ben Hinckfoot have graduated and moved on, but a rock-solid tradition and nucleus of impressive athletes remain in place.
But before looking ahead, how about looking back at those thrilling 2014 GPAC titles, both of which came on the campus of rival Doane, which possessed a stranglehold on the top spot in recent years. The unseating of Doane marked the achievement of a goal last year’s senior class finally saw through. For current senior Tai Pleasant, life doesn’t get much better.
“It was one of the greatest feelings of my life,” said Pleasant, a 12-time all-conference honoree. “The fact that I got to win a championship with all the guys that I came to this school with was amazing. It always seemed like we would be able to win a title, but we never had all the pieces to do it. Last year we finally had all the right pieces.”
Already one indoor meet into the 2015 season, 23rd-year head coach Kregg Einspahr fields another group with top-of-the-GPAC aspirations. Last season’s breakthrough may help blaze a trail for a string of runs at the conference crown.
“I think it helps give you a certain amount of confidence,” Einspahr said of the 2014 successes. “Track and field can be a little difficult sometimes to develop a team feeling to it. There are so many moving parts and different aspects to it. I think there’s a very strong team aspect to it.
“I think that sense of pride and confidence (from winning GPAC titles), to a certain degree, can carry over having experienced it already. To have a feeling like you’re part of a successful team gives things a different flavor.”
While Einspahr says it’s not typical for freshmen to make or break your season, sophomore standout CJ Muller served as an exception in aiding Concordia’s rise to the top last season. Muller earned all-conference honors in the 200 and 400 meter dashes and as part of the 4x400 meter relay at both the 2014 GPAC indoor and outdoor meets.
Muller, a native of Omaha and former Millard West High School prep, says he learned from the likes of Becker, Cartier and others who worked tirelessly towards last season’s achievements. But the world didn’t stop just because last year turned into a special season.
“After winning the championship it really has motivated everyone, girls and guys,” Muller said. “We gained a lot of experience from last year, and we are ready to write our own story. Training has been stepped up to a whole new level, making sure we achieve our ultimate goal of repeating as GPAC champs.”
Einspahr admits that the points lost in the hurdles and sprints from the departures of Becker, Cartier and Hinckfoot will not be easily made up. Blows like that should be offset by other areas of strength, such as the throws. Assistant coach Ed McLaughlin’s group might just turn out to be historic.
The ringleader is redshirt sophomore Zach Lurz, who might just have the physique to play Thor’s body double. The native of Torrington, Wyo., holds the school’s outdoor shot put record (57’ 3”) and ranks No. 2 on the discus list (177’ 9”). Teammate Cody Boellstorff owns the hammer throw record (203’ 4”) and is another in a long line of throwers expected to again score big points.
It’s such a talented group that modesty sometimes gets thrown to the wind.
“This is the best group of throwers this school has ever seen,” Lurz said. “Just look at the all-time lists. That alone can speak for itself. By the time I graduate from here, I will most likely have seen every single throwing record broken. Other schools hate throwing against us. We take too many people to the finals. Other schools in the conference might have one or two people make the final at any given meet, but we usually have five or six. Plus we have Liz King (2014 javelin national titlist).”
The prowess of Concordia’s throwers has become a given, along with another area of strength: the pole vault. Farr, a former GPAC pole vault champion, has used up his eligibility, but junior Brandon Ramos and sophomore Lucas Wiechman are rising stars and have qualified for the national championships in the pole vault. Einspahr believes both are breakout candidates coming off of already stellar 2014 campaigns.
Plus senior Ben Sievert, an All-American on the track and on the cross country trail, and another nice stable of 400 meter runners cannot be forgotten. Sievert is one of many accomplished Bulldogs on the roster. Now it’s time for several others to make their names.
“Guys have realized they can no longer be at the back of the pack and they have to carry their own weight,” Pleasant said. “This year's team really works on pushing each other to the max every day in practice. It's been paying off. We have some guys running faster and jumping higher and farther than they ever have.”
Improvement will be paramount in a conference Einspahr often refers to as the finest in small college track and field. Concordia will be one of the favorites, but nothing will come easy in the GPAC.
“We’d like see what we can do,” Einspahr said. “We should be in the top three of the conference. It’s a little early to see what some other schools have.
“We have some guys who I think are going to be considerably improved over last year. They have another year of confidence under their belts and I think some of them will open some eyes. Some are already pretty well-regarded in the conference and they’re just going to be that much better this year.”
Einspahr and his athletes seem to be on the same page. Last year was last year. Concordia has begun a new chapter.
“It’s a pretty common topic of conversation,” said Lurz of winning another conference title. “Being able to repeat as GPAC champs would just be another reminder as to just how good this team is and can be.”
Women show well in opening meet
Led by sophomore Kali Robb, the Bulldog women also have lofty expectations. Robb rang in the 2015 season with automatic national qualifying marks in both the shot put and the weight throw at last week’s Scott Nisely Memorial Classic hosted by Doane. Four additional Concordia women turned in national qualifying marks: Stephanie Coley (shot put), Brittany Erdmann (shot put), Katelyn Shoup (triple jump) and Cassie Starks (pole vault) for a balanced squad.
“I think we’re going to be a better team, but we’re probably going to need to improve in the middle distances and distances,” Einspahr said. “We’re a better long sprint and short-middle distance team than we were last year. We’ll have a very good throws group and a good pole vault group, as well as an excellent group of multi-eventers. We’ll see how that shakes out.
“I think we’ll be in the hunt for the top three spots in the conference on the women’s side as well.”