The UCLA men’s distance team has of late been one of the most formidable collegiate track and field groups in the country.
Members of the distance squad own a total of six times within the national top 20 across all but two of the distance events, and the 1500-meter group is currently ranked No. 1 nationally, according to UCLA Athletics.
Assistant coach Forest Braden said this is the most disciplined distance team he has coached in his eight-year tenure at UCLA.
“(The team) has just been building for a long time. … I was almost just waiting for it to catch critical mass,” Braden said. “The men’s team is meticulous with everything they do.”
Redshirt senior Austin O’Neil is leading the way. O’Neil’s personal best times of 8 minutes, 44.86 seconds in the 3000-meter steeplechase and 3:42.86 in the 1500-meter rank him third and fifth overall in the nation, respectively.
“It’s nice to be able to run those times in fairly low-key meets. … Once I get in some bigger races the times will come down,” O’Neil said. “Our distance team as a whole is just crushing it right now.”
Among the bigger meets, O’Neil mentioned, is the Mt. SAC Relays, where UCLA is sending some of its top distance runners this weekend.
The Bruins have six athletes entered in the open 5000-meter, two in the open 3000-meter steeplechase and four in the invitational elite 5000-meter. O’Neil and fellow senior Jonah Diaz are entered in the open 5000-meter, and Braden said he expects big things from the both of them.
“He and Jonah Diaz are definitely the heart and soul of the group,” Braden said. “(O’Neil) has taken it upon himself to be great. … His overall fitness and his overall confidence is really high.”
Among O’Neil’s peers is sophomore Arturo Sotomayor, who currently ranks seventh in the nation with his 1500-meter time of 3:42.60. In addition to the 1500-meter, Sotomayor has reset his personal bests in the 800-meter and the mile, posting times of 1:49.20 and 4:03.57, respectively. He has finished no lower than third in any of his events so far this outdoor season.
Aside from the returners, the distance team also features a lineup of strong new additions, like freshmen John Carter Blunt and Garrett Reynolds.
“I’ve been paying attention to Carter for a while. He is a really tough kid,” Braden said. “This is the best freshman class I’ve ever had, easily. … I usually redshirt the freshmen for the whole year but this freshman class is so good they’ve kind of forced my hand.”
Blunt logged a time of 4:02.06 in his first-ever mile run as a Bruin, a time which, according to coach Mike Maynard, is virtually unheard of from a freshman. He currently owns the fifth fastest time in the nation in the mile.
“Back in high school I never really had a team that I could train with,” Blunt said. “Coming to college it’s different because now we have guys that are way better than me and I have a pack that I can strive to try and run with.”
Blunt credits Braden and Sotomayor for his success in the mile, saying that without them he wouldn’t have posted such a brisk time.
“I think the biggest thing is they’re starting to believe. They’re starting to feed off each other,” Braden said. “They see the success of their teammates and it causes them to believe in what they are doing.”