Early in the Michigan men’s track and field team’s season, a competitive, hard-fought victory could help dictate the tone for the team’s success — especially for an upward-trending program like the Wolverines.
In its first official scoring meet of the 2023 indoor season, Michigan found that tone-setting success at the Simmons-Harvey Invitational. The Wolverines finished first with 153 points, ahead of Ohio State — the reigning Big Ten champions — Purdue and Michigan State in the four team meet.
Michigan was led by dominant performances in distance races, and important contributions on the field side by junior jumper Berachiah Ajala. While the Wolverines’ distance runners made the crowd roar with their wire-to-wire finishes in the 3000 meter and one-mile races, Ajala cruised under the radar to a podium-topping triple jump and second-place-finishing long jump, earning crucial points for the team victory.
“Both (events) were good,” Ajala said. “I wanted to have fun in the long jump again, come back this week and just have some good marks. … For the triple jump, I was opening this week, so I just wanted to get a good opener. It was the first opener I had since I’ve done triple jump. It was solid.”
In the 800 meter race, sophomore distance runner Henry Johnson ran a Big Ten season best 1:51.24. He finished first ahead of his teammate, senior distance runner Thomas Shilgalis, who finished three-quarters of a second on his tail.
Unlike his teammates competing in longer distance events, Johnson needed to run a strategic race to take the victory for Michigan, sticking with the pack before weaving his way into the lead as the bell rang to signal the final lap.
“It was good to kind of just sit on the shoulder, be ready when the moves came,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I had the lead with 100 (meters) to go and it felt like I had another gear, which is exciting.”
The Wolverines secured the team victory, and demonstrated the key strength of their program, in the 3000 meter race. Michigan runners finished in six of the top eight spots, including the top four. Senior distance runner Nick Foster won the event — and smashed the previous meet record of 7:58.06 — with a personal best 7:53.94.
The Wolverines’ coaching staff understood how important the win was and recognized the implications of their dominance in the 3000 meter race.
“We talk to our team about competing and beating people,” Michigan assistant coach Steven Rajewsky said. “So I think on a day like today, having an event like (the 3000 meter) where you dominate something and guys also run well, I think that bodes (well) for the team part of a team competition, which doesn’t always happen in track.”
As Michigan works towards its later season meets and prepares its athletes for high pressure environments at Big Ten and NCAA Championships beginning in late February, it’s looking to hit its apex at the right time.
“As you get to the back end of the season you start to lighten the load in training,” Rajewsky said. “You’re starting to get sharp and focus more on performance as you get into February.”
By flexing its muscles in its best events — namely distance races — Michigan managed to conceal early-season woes in field competition. Aside from Ajala, the Wolverines only tallied top three finishes in one field event, with junior thrower Eli Winter and freshman thrower Zane Forist placing second and third in the weighted throw, respectively.
If Michigan wants to continue growing, it can lean into its strengths to capitalize on its early season momentum.