Over the past 10 years, UCLA track and field has had the head-turning athletes.
It’s had Nicholas Scarvelis, a Rio Olympian and multiple-time NCAA nationals qualifier in the shot put, Turquoise Thompson and Nicole Leach, both three-time national-top-3 finishers in the 400-meter hurdles, and others, but it hasn’t finished in the top 10 nationally as a team since 2007.
Take it from men’s sprints and hurdles coach Darrell Smith though – the pieces are all here this year.
“From the recruiting that we have done as a team, we’re really, really primed to do big things come June,” Smith said. “I’m anxious to see the different parts, from the throwers, to the jumpers, to the sprinters, to the distance coming off a great cross country season and putting it on the track, and seeing everybody flourish and grow and blossom.”
The recruiting Smith mentioned has the potential to pay dividends this very season. First-year javelin thrower Simon Litzell has a personal best of 258-8 feet on the 800-gram javelin – the official NCAA weight – that would have won the event at the 2016 outdoor championships. Fellow freshman javelin thrower Marian Spannowsky’s personal best is 7-7 feet shorter, which would have placed third.
The jumps team adds freshman Isaiah Holmes, who held the best high school long jump distance in the nation in the 2016 season, and freshman triple jump junior national record-holder Tobia Bocchi to a jumps team that already returns two-time NCAA outdoor triple jump qualifier junior Idrees Bernard and NCAA long jump qualifier senior Austin Hazel.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve always wanted to have a jumps squad that’s rivaling Oregon or SC,” Hazel said. “I feel like (Holmes and Bocchi) haven’t missed a beat since whatever they were doing in high school. … I think they’ll definitely do really well this year.”
Hazel himself finally cracked the 25-foot long jump ceiling in 2016, and he’s looking forward to having a big debut this weekend, he said, at the Columbia East-West Challenge in the Armory, New York.
The track, incidentally, is the home track of one of UCLA’s brightest sprinting stars.
Sophomore sprinter Rai Benjamin was injured for the majority of the 2016 outdoor season, but in his first race back, qualified for the NCAA West Regionals in the 400-meter hurdles and ended up taking sixth place overall at the NCAA nationals.
“I’m really looking forward to having him for the year,” Smith said. “We’re expecting big things from him, he’s been training really well lately. … The Armory is literally his home track, he’s probably run more meets on that track than anybody in history.”
The first-team All-American sophomore is one of seven, according to Smith, on a smaller, sprints-only division that lost three seniors due to graduation, but retains NCAA Regional qualifiers junior hurdler Misana Viltz and junior sprinter Leon Powell.
On the women’s side, the team loses veterans Kylie Price, Faith Anumba and Trinity Wilson as well as up-and-coming star thrower Stamatia Scarvelis who transferred, but UCLA retains senior javelin thrower Zaybree Haury and senior shot putter Torie Owers, who launched the sixth-farthest throw in UCLA women’s shot put history last year at 57-5 feet.
The women’s team adds a handful of distance runners, including freshman Claire Markey, the top runner for the cross country team in her first year of competitive running, and one high jumper in freshman Alisha Edwards.
Owers, who enters her last season, would like to throw over 60 feet, but has set her sights on getting more consistent and enjoying her last year.
“My main goal for the year is to relax and have fun,” Owers said. “I think whatever kind of distance comes out from there, it would be great to throw 18 meters or around 60 feet, but the main thing I want to do is just get consistent and do well for the team when it matters.”
When it matters likely won’t be until the outdoor season winds down in May, but there will still be stiff competition this weekend in New York, and rather than easing into the season, Hazel and Smith would like to make a statement early on.
“We want to come out and show people that we’re really good,” Hazel said. “I think that that’s been one of the statements we’ve been trying to make for a while now, and with this past team last year and how we’ve been building on it this year, I think that this meet is definitely to make a statement.”