By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
A second place finish at The Summit League Indoor Championships on Feb. 25 made UNO Track and Field the first program on campus to bring home conference hardware and add a Division I trophy to the case.
Maverick runners, throwers and jumpers captured four individual event titles, highlighted by Sami Spenner’s three wins in the pentathlon, long jump and triple jump. Teammate Maja Mihalinec was the other event champion in the 60 meter dash.
Track and field will find out how much of that success translates outdoors when the Mavs travel to Tulsa, Okla. for the Tulsa Duals on March 16.
Several challenges lay ahead for a team that finished five spots higher than was expected in the conference preseason poll. Finishing in a similar position in the outdoor season will likely be determined by UNO’s ability to overcome new events and nagging injuries.
“When we go to meets, especially championship meets, we just stand there and hope for the best when we see all these vaulters from the other schools,” Head Coach Steve Smith said. “We sit there and watch everybody else cash in and we just have to make it up somewhere else.”
But pole vault isn’t the only shortfall the Mavs have to make up. When the calendar transitions into the outdoor season, UNO is at a disadvantage because the list of field events grows by the additions of javelin, discus and hammer throw.
The lack of those events becomes an immediate issue at any meet and at the conference championships especially. Omaha failed to record a single team point in the field events of shot put and weight throw during the conference indoor meet.
The ability for the Mavs to become competitive in those events in the near future doesn’t look good either. Since the university doesn’t have the facilities to train for pole vault, javelin, discus or hammer throw, UNO is unable to recruit field athletes who could help fill some of the team’s holes.
Two weeks ago Sami Spenner made up much of UNO’s field deficit at the conference championship meet by winning three events and finishing in the top 10 of two others.
Even if she’s able to duplicate those efforts at the outdoor championships, three extra events means the Mavs are likely to be looking at an even larger shortage of team points.
Putting UNO on a level playing field with the rest of The Summit League will require a major commitment from the athletic department. Right now, it’s out of the Mavs hands.
The other part of the equation for outdoor success is getting athletes healthy.
Spenner’s dazzling indoor season makes her a known quantity. Another athlete who’s set high expectations due indoor results is senior Amanda Vorthmann.
Vorthmann has already set multiple indoor records this season, oftentimes breaking her own school record, and now holds UNO’s top marks in the 3,000 meters, the mile and the 5,000 meters.
But Spenner and Vorthmann will require a supporting cast. Smith pointed to three athletes in particular who could have a huge impact if some of the aches and pains go away.
One of those is senior Lianne McNaughton. As a thrower, McNaughton is doubly important because she can help UNO make a dent in some of the field events.
McNaughton’s indoor season included a personal best weight throw mark of 52-08 on Feb. 9 at the Iowa State Classic. However, when McNaughton achieved her personal record it was just her second appearance of the indoor season. Injury forced McNaughton into a redshirt in 2011-2012 and has stymied her career over the past few seasons.
Now in her final year of eligibility, McNaughton has only got so much time left to turn into the reliable field athlete Smith and his staff expected her to become.
“We’re really hoping, and so is she, that she gets better,” Smith said. “She had a back injury and [we] hope that she can finish the season out and have a good final season in her senior year. We were kind of counting on her to get us some points in the throws indoors, and now once we get outdoors too.”
McNaughton’s teammate Katarina Zarudnaya knows all too well about missing a season due to injury. Prior to leaving her homeland in Belgorod, Russia, Zarudnaya had competed for Russia in the 800 meters of the 2008 World Junior Championships.
Smith said her time in the 1,500 before coming to UNO would have won a Division I championship. But due to NCAA regulations, Zarudnaya’s transfer to Omaha required sitting out a year of competition.
Though she couldn’t compete, she was allowed to train and eventually Zarudnaya showed her ability when she finished seventh overall at the 2010 MIAA Cross Country Championship. In her first ever cross country meet Zarudnaya set a personal best 6K time and was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year.
Patella tendinitis and some nagging injuries prevented Zarudnaya from continuing that success and competing in the track and field season.
“She’s starting to come back [and] she’s starting to come around,” Smith said of Zarudnaya. “I don’t know this year if she’ll be back to her full form but she’s getting better every week. When we recruited her she was gonna be one of those big point-getters for us at the Division II nationals. Obviously if she’s fast enough to win Division I nationals she could have done pretty well at D-II.”
Last but not certainly not least, Smith pointed to jumper and sprinter Kathie-Lee Laidley as another Mav who could produce some outdoor success by being 100 percent.
A season ago Laidley was UNO’s premier indoor high jumper and outdoor long jumper.
Laidley won the high jump all three times she competed and the long jump in five out of six. But in 2013 Laidley has competed in the high jump four times and only finished as high as second twice.
“I think she’s feeling better and I think she’s getting back to full form,” Smith said. “In high school not too many years ago she was the Jamaican national champion in the high jump, and set our school record right away in her freshman year. Then she started having little aches and pains.”
Smith points to recent success at The Summit League Indoor Meet as evidence that Laidley should soon be returning to top form. At the meet Laidley finished second in the high jump with a season best, set a personal best in the long jump while taking another second place finish and captured sixth in the 60 meter hurdles.
Laidley was one of the highest point producers for the team putting up 18 towards the Mavs total all by herself.
Her best mark this year was a 5-08 at the conference championship. Laidley’s career best came over two years ago when she cleared 5-10 in January 2011 at the Jack Jennett Invitational hosted by Northern Iowa.
Since then Laidley has had some leg and knee issues, but nothing that required major surgery. Though Laidley’s aches and pains haven’t put her in the operating room, Smith says the nature of track and field competition doesn’t allow for injury no matter how minor.
“In track everything you do – run, jump, throw, sprint, whatever – every time you perform you’re going at 100 percent,” Smith said. “You don’t jog at anything, you don’t take a breather when you’re coming down the runway. When you’re not 100 percent you can’t go 100 percent.”
“Little nagging aches and pains, and little lingering kinds of small injuries can take their toll on you. I think she’s starting to get over that.”