No one will mistake this Michigan men’s track and field team for one of the 31 teams in program history that have won a Big Ten team title. But coach Jerry Clayton is setting realistic goals, and this year, that means individual improvement that will eventually get the program back to that level.
In his first season, he hasn’t tried to hide the fact that his team is rebuilding.
“We’re not going to finish really high, if you look at it on paper,” Clayton said. “We’re probably in the lower half, but we’re just going to try to score as many points as we can.”
That process continues this weekend with the Big Ten Outdoor Championships at Purdue, the Wolverines’ first scoring meet since April 5.
Michigan finished 10th of 11 teams at last year’s meet with 36 points. Nebraska won the title by 38.5 with 131.5 points and enters as a heavy favorite again this year.
“We have to approach this meet the way we did (indoor championships),” Clayton said. “You have to have goals, realistic and attainable goals. To do that, we want the athletes to place higher than they came in ranked and from there perform personal bests.”
The Wolverines, meanwhile, are looking to improve from a last-place finish at the indoor championships on March 1.
This weekend is also Michigan’s last chance to qualify athletes for the NCAA preliminary rounds.
The Wolverines return five individual point scorers from last year’s outdoor championships. The highest is Ethan Dennis, who finished third in the hammer throw. Mason Ferlic placed fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, while Cody Riffle was fourth in the shot put. Clayton, a specialist in field events, has helped field athletes such as Dennis and Riffle improve tremendously this year.
Distance runner Mark Beams and hurdler Troy Sneller also finished eighth last year.
Four of those five individual events were not contested at the indoor championships, giving Michigan extra chances to score this weekend. The outdoor championships also include the 4x100-meter relay, in which the Wolverines placed fifth last year.
Ferlic and Dennis are ranked in the top eight in the Big Ten in addition to four other Michigan athletes: August Pappas (10,000-meter), Bradley James (high jump), Patrick Cochran (long jump) and Stephen Burk (javelin).
The Wolverines will take 21 athletes to the championships this weekend, many of whom will be competing in the conference championships for the first time.
“We’ll try to set up and make those types of goals and then add up the points and see what where we finish as a team. I think that’s where we are at this point in the program. We’ve got to focus in on what is realistic, and if everybody accomplishes that, we’ll finish as high as we can.
“The Big Ten championships and NCAA preliminary rounds are the meets which we are judged on. That’s where we expect you to perform at a high level.”