COLUMBUS – As the bell rang signaling the last lap of the 1500-meter run, freshman Nick Willis was positioned dead last among the pack of eight runners racing to get a ticket to the NCAA Championships. Doubt and anxiety covered the faces of the Michigan crowd, but Michigan coach Ron Warhurst seemed calm as his freshman standout trailed during the NCAA Mideast Regionals on Saturday.
“I told Nick, ‘Stick to our plan. Don’t do anything until the 500-meter mark. Then move up, and within that 500-meter mark, you decide when you’re going to go,’ ” Warhurst said.
The coach’s strategy worked for his young runner as Willis gracefully executed the plan, taking over the lead in a matter of seconds. The New Zealand native not only held on to first-place for the remainder of the race, but managed to finish an amazing 15 meters in front of the pack with a time of 3:45.45.
“I looked behind me as I was going down the backstretch to see what the gap was like,” Willis said. “And I was quite surprised to see it was a lot bigger than I expected.”
Although this speedy runner knew exactly what he was doing going into the race, the freshman confessed that even he had his doubts.
“Basically I just wanted to get through the race without tripping over,” Willis said. “I was pretty confident, but if for some reason I didn’t go (to Nationals), I would feel like a bit of a tool. I wanted to stay out of trouble as much as possible.”
Willis took the win in the 1,500 at the Big Ten Championships just a few weeks ago and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in both the indoor and outdoor track seasons this year. He will be heading to Sacramento, Calif. in two weeks to compete against other nationally-ranked runners for the NCAA title.
Sophomore Nate Brannen will also join Willis in California after triumphing in his specialty event, the 800-meter run. During Friday’s preliminaries, Brannen took an early lead, but lagged behind Tennessee’s Marc Sylvester as he crossed the finish line in second.
For Saturday’s finals, the sophomore tried a different style. Brannen purposely stayed in the middle of the pack until the last 100 meters, when his hard kick propelled him into first and took him across the line in the winning time of 1:48.35.
“I said, ‘Don’t go until you get to the straightaway – the wind’s going to be at your back,’ ” Warhurst said about his advice to Brannen before the race.
“(For preliminaries), I was pretty much just chasing a time,” said Brannen, explaining his different racing strategies. “I wanted to be nationally ranked because if I didn’t get in the top five on Friday, then I could get to the Nationals on my time alone.”
In the Mideast Regionals, individuals with qualifying times from the outdoor track season competed for a spot at Nationals. The top five in each event as well as the next three fastest runners overall were chosen to move on.
Sophomore Rondell Ruff and freshman Andrew Ellerton also came close to earning a spot at nationals.
Ruff struck out the first day of competition, finishing fourth in his heat of the 1500-meter preliminaries, missing a chance at Saturday’s finals by just seven hundredths of a second.
“I kind of fell off the pack with maybe 1100 to go,” Ruff said. “Then at 300 to go, the lead pack started pulling away so I kicked. I made a good strong move, but I died with 50 meters to go.”
Ellerton made it to the second day of competition in the 800-meter run, but missed going to Nationals by an even smaller margin than Ruff – two hundredths of a second.
“Andrew just missed, but he’s had a problem with his knee for the past two weeks,” Warhurst said. “It’s better that he didn’t make it so he won’t be tempted to go to Nationals (with an injury).”
Ruff admitted he was just happy that he had the chance to compete at the regional meet.
“I was pleased because it’s a long season and I wasn’t ranked too highly,” Ruff said. “I did better than a lot of people expected – and I’ve still got two years left.”
Brannen and Willis now must look to the NCAA Finals on June 11 on their own.
“They’ll both have an opportunity to get to the finals at Nationals, and then anything can happen,” Warhurst said. “The goal would be to have them in the top three, but obviously Nate and Nick’s goal is to win.”