Place in the top 12, or go home – that was the situation for all 24 UCLA track and field athletes who competed this weekend.
A total of six Bruins managed to make the cut at the NCAA West Preliminary Round in Sacramento and will join senior heptathlete Kendall Gustafson at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Oregon. This marked a noticeable drop from last year, when UCLA sent 14 athletes to the NCAAs.
Freshman Alyssa Wilson had an all-time showing, making the cut in the hammer, discus and shot put. She became the first-ever Bruin to qualify for nationals in three separate throwing events.
Wilson said that she was more focused on achieving her personal goals than making history.
“It’s just great to accomplish something I had as a goal in mind coming in to this school,” Wilson said. “I just wanted to have a great freshman year, and keep improving.”
Wilson also set herself apart at the national level, becoming the only female athlete this year to qualify in three different throwing events.
According to Wilson, her goal is to become an All-American in the hammer throw and finish top 10 in the shot put and discus at nationals.
The throws team added two more qualifiers in the men’s javelin, as sophomores Simon Litzell and Marian Spannowsky finished sixth and ninth, respectively, to both move on to the NCAA championships for the second straight year.
In the men’s hammer throw, junior Justin Stafford secured his first ever nationals appearance with a throw of 64.65 meters, good for sixth overall.
Stafford said it was catharsis after last year’s regionals, when he fouled out on all of his throws.
“It’s a great feeling to know that I’ve advanced this year,” Stafford said. “After last year, I made a commitment to myself that this would never happen again. I’ve literally counted down the last 364 days to this day. I’m just grateful that it’s all paying off.”
Elsewhere in the field, senior Jessie Maduka booked her ticket to her third championship appearance after failing to make the cut last year. She took fourth in the women’s triple jump with a mark of 13.42 meters.
UCLA had just one qualifier on the track, as junior Robert Brandt ran 29:15.57 in the men’s 10,000 meter to finish eighth overall. Brandt led the way for much of the race and was still in the lead heading into the final lap.
“One of my strategies was if the race got slow, I would just take it and push the pace,” Brandt said. “They caught me in the last 200 meters, but I was able to hold on and get that eighth place spot. Going into it, I knew I didn’t really have the finishing speed that the other guys had, so I wanted to grind it out at the front.”
Brandt said that his goal for nationals is simple.
“Ever since watching the NCAAs when I was kid, I knew that someday I wanted to be there and get one of those All-American spots,” Brandt said. “Now I have that opportunity, and hopefully it can become a reality.”
Meanwhile, some seasons came to a disappointing end.
Perhaps the most notable Bruin who did not qualify was redshirt junior Ashlie Blake, who made it to nationals last year and was an All-American in the women’s shot put during the indoor season. Entering this weekend’s meet ranked No. 4 in the field for the shot put, Blake finished 16th overall.
“All of us were upset when we found out that she wouldn’t be coming with us to nationals,” Wilson said of her teammate. “I was joking around earlier and actually told (throws coach John) Frazier, ‘If I make it in the discus and hammer, could she throw shot put for me?’ I feel like she deserves to go. But it happens to everyone.”
On the track, the women’s 4×100 relay team narrowly missed the cut for nationals, falling short by less than a quarter of a second.
In total, seven Bruins will make the trip to Eugene. This number is just half of the total that UCLA sent last year, when its 14 athletes at nationals was the most for the school since 2004.
“It’s obviously really tough for the athletes that don’t make it,” Stafford said. “I remember that feeling really well from last year. But we’re a tight group, and we’ll always be there to support our teammates.”
Those seven Bruins will now have nine days to prepare before they take the stage for the final time this season.