By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
Finishing in the top 20 is normally a springboard to further success the following season. For the UNO women’s track and field team and Assistant Coach Chris Richardson, competing in 2012 means much more than just getting better than last year.
As the transition to Division I continues for Maverick teams across campus, track and field will have to experience the same growing pains as everyone else.
“This year is gonna be a year for getting stronger, getting wiser, getting our technique down a little better,” said Richardson, the South Central Regional Division II Wmen’s Assistant Coach of the Year for 2011. “Next year when we’ve entered the Summit League, they’ll be able to go out there and compete with the best of them.”
Taking a step back and focusing on improvement over competition might be a tough pill to swallow for Richardson and the Mavs. There was success in 2011, and there’s still a lot left in the cupboard.
UNO produced national champions, numerous All-Americans and school records in 2011.
Five of those All-Americans return for 2012.
“This year and past years we’ve had some individuals capable of going to nationals for Division I and being competitive, but for now it’s gonna be a building process,” Richardson said.
“It’s gonna be something where I think once our girls start realizing what they have to do in order to get to that level that’s where we can start getting to that level as well.”
The Mavs already have some of those athletes on the roster. Sophomore Kathie-Lee Laidley, out of Portmore, Jamaica, was an indoors All-American in the high jump, had a school record jump of 5-10 in the pentathlon at Northern Iowa and won the MIAA Championship.
Junior Sami Spenner from Columbus, Neb., was an outdoor All-American in the heptathlon, finished fifth in that event at the NCAA Championships and set a school record mark of 39-5 ¾ in the triple jump at the MIAA Championship.
Senior Maja Mihalinec out of Mozijre, Slovenia, was an indoor All-American at 60-meters, set a school record in that event with a time of 7.49 seconds and was an All-MIAA team selection.
“We have a whole bunch of returning All-Americans,” Richardson said. “Sami Spenner, she was an All-American in the heptathlon.”
“She’s one who’s going to be able to score in a wide variety of events – long jump, triple jump, high jump, javelin. She’s just a well-rounded athlete who can do lots of good things for us.”
Yet, with all the talent returning to the team in 2012 that doesn’t mean UNO didn’t go out and find some complements to what is already in place. Traditionally, the Mavs have always had a strong runners and a strong 4 X 400 relay team.
Some of the additions include Lauren Psota from Kearney, Neb., Terri Armstrong out of Bellevue, and Amanda Alexander from Omaha.
Psota finished third in the Nebraska State Meet in the 400, Alexander was a four-year letter winner for Millard West and Armstrong helped Bellevue West to an eighth place finish at the state meet.
“We’re really excited to have her (Lauren Psota) as part of our team because she showed tremendous improvement this year in high school for her senior year,” Richardson said. “Terri Armstrong, she’s another one who can show a tremendous amount of improvement in the 400.”
“And we have Amanda Alexander. She’s one of the well-rounded athletes who can come in and show she can do many events.”
But as the Mavs look forward to more competition in D-I and becoming a full-fledged member of the Summit League, big things might be ahead. It’s not as if it will be all new to UNO. Some opponents who are making a mark in the Mavs’ new conference are rather familiar.
Speaking about the conference, Richardson said that North Dakota State and South Dakota are likely to be near the top of the conference in 2012. But recent history says UNO shouldn’t have any problems stacking up to that competition.
“South Dakota, this is gonna be their first year as a member and we used to go head-to-head with them in the NCC (North Central Conference),” Richardson said. “We kind of went back and forth as who’s gonna be the best team in the NCC between them and us.”
“Now that they’re in there, they’re gonna be pushing North Dakota State a lot. Once we get that opportunity to go in there, I think we’re gonna be right up there with them.”
But before that can happen, some things have to change. For a while now, UNO has been able to compete at the D-II level with a smaller team that had a handful of standouts.
Stepping up to D-I means a change in requirements for how the Mavs qualify for the NCAA tournament at the end of the season. In the past as a D-II team, it didn’t matter what meets UNO competed in.
Whether it was against D-I, D-II or NAIA it all counted towards qualifying for the season-end championships. As a member of D-I, 80 percent of the meets the Mavs compete in have to be against D-I competition.
Meets against Doane College won’t suffice anymore. Chances are the UNO women’s track team may be spending more time on the road.
“We probably need to increase our depth a little bit,” Richardson said. “We’ve always been a smaller team with individuals who can score really high. Now we just need a little more depth so we can compete with those larger teams that have more funding.”