Michigan was just two points from the runner-up spot — that’s how close the Big Ten Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championships were this weekend.
The Wovlerines ultimately finished fourth at the 2016 championship meet, but up until the very last moments, they were entangled in a bitter three-way battle for second with Wisconsin and Minnesota, having successfully placed above Penn State and Indiana after the first day of competition. Nebraska ran away with the team title, scoring 116 points, but the Badgers, Golden Gophers and Wolverines finished with 73, 72 and 71 points, respectively.
“I thought we had a really good championship,” said Michigan coach Jerry Clayton. “We knew it was going to be close, and we thought that the challenge to be third or fourth would be tough. It ended up being a three way battle for second place, and we came up on the short end. On the second day, especially, people stepped it up and performed at a high level. We wanted those extra two or three points, but we still accomplished so much and the athletes were successful with their attitude, focus and their effort.”
Under Clayton’s three-year tutelage, the program has risen from placing 11th in his first year to finishing in fourth for 2016. For two years in a row, Michigan is the only school to score in every middle-distance and distance event.
Clayton attributes this to the acquisition of assistant coach Kevin Sullivan two years ago. Sullivan also is the head coach for men’s cross country and a Wolverine alumnus.
“Coach Sullivan has made an excellent program,” Clayton said. “When he was here as an athlete, Michigan was known as a total-package distance program. We lost that prior to him coming in. We became more of a long-distance program and we wanted that middle distance back. When I hired him, that was one of the things I wanted to bring back to our tradition. That’s the base of what we feel our success should be based on.
“We expect to get better in the other areas, absolutely. But we want to be known as the middle- distance program to come to. That’s the direction, and the credit goes to Sullivan.”
And the growth of the middle-distance program showed.
Fifth-year senior Mason Ferlic garnered an individual crown in the 5,000-meter run — finishing in a personal best time of 13:50.81 — after lapping multiple athletes toward the tail end of the event. His strategy involved an early lead, something that didn’t work out so well for him the previous day in the 3,000-meter race, in which he finished fourth.
“It was not where I wanted to finish,” Ferlic said of the 3,000-meter event. “It was still points, but it was a disappointing race. But I had to put that behind me because I had another race to focus on. I still had to business to take care off, I had another huge opportunity to do well in the 5k. (I was thinking) Michigan needs these points, Michigan needs me to step up. I came into (the 5,000-meter run) with a little bit of fire.”
Along with Ferlic, his classmate August Pappas scored points in the event with a seventh-place finish.
“(Ferlic) has been a cornerstone for the program since I arrived,” Clayton said. “He’s really stepped up in all three seasons; cross country, indoor track and outdoor. His leadership has been critical for the success of program. (The coaches are) very pleased with him.”
And his influence as a co-captain and leader of the team has been paramount, especially in a close competition like the Big Ten Indoor Championships. Ferlic and the coaches emphasize the team and supporting the group rather than focusing on a few individuals.
“The whole goal is to get (the athletes) to finish higher than they came in,” Clayton said. “And there’s a very large percentage who do that now.
“We focus both on and off the track, in academics, athletics and in taking care of your health. There’s been a culture change in the program, where for the past three years I’ve been trying to get the whole team to work together. The leadership in the captains has stepped up, and athletes are seeing that’s what makes the difference. They’re starting to understand that we’re attempting to (win) as a team.”
Going into the weekend, Michigan was seeded second in the 400-meter and 3,000-meter runs and the distance medley relay. By the end of the weekend, the Wolverines claimed third-place medals in the 400-meter race by freshman Taylor McLaughlin — breaking the program record with a personal best of 46.42 — and the 800-meter run by Brennan Munley with a personal best of 1:48.38.
Other standout performances included senior Steven Bastien’s win in the heptathlon — Michigan’s second-ever Big Ten title-holder in the event and, after the 2015 season, the first ever Wolverine to be an All-American in the event. He broke his own program record with a total of 5,801 overall points and four personal bests.
In addition, junior Connor Mora placed third in the mile with a time of 4:09.32. His performance is number four on Michigan’s all-time list.
“It was a good weekend for the Wolverines,” Ferlic said. “On paper, we scored higher than predicted. After the first day there was some doubt, but we definitely flipped the switch in the second day. We need that mentality going into outdoors, to know how to keep putting in effort. We need that going forward, to know how to bounce back.”
The Wolverines also scored big in the field events with a personal best by redshirt sophomore Grant Cartwright in throws. On the second day of competition, redshirt freshman Joe Ellis placed fourth with a throw of 21.22 meters. In shot put, fifth-year senior Derek Sievers took third place for the second year in a row with a final mark of 18.67 meters.
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Stephens Jr. finished second in the triple jump, beating his personal record by two feet with a final jump of 15.47 meters.
Overall, Michigan was a formidable opponent in almost every event, something that the Wolverines take pride in.
“Coming in, it was really tight and there were single point differences in placing,” Clayton said. “That’s crazy, you don’t see that in many conferences. For the athletes to come forward and be at that level … we were scoring points in areas with little expectation. So many guys did so well, it really was a team effort from all factions. It’s where we want to be as a program.”