About 20 members of the Michigan men’s track and field team made the 870-mile trip to Fayetteville, Ark. for the NCAA Championships. None of them were even competing. But there was definitely something to watch.
At least according to freshman Joe Schramski.
“We’re taking four cars and about 20 guys – it’s going to be awesome,” Schramski said earlier last week. “We’re going to be national champions and definitely bring back some good stuff.”
Michigan track runners seem to be on the ball when it comes to predictions, because Schramski was right – they definitely brought back some good stuff.
On Friday in the 800-meter run preliminaries, sophomore Nate Brannen earned fourth place behind an Arkansas rival, with times of 1:47.98 and 1:47.90, respectively – but that was not enough for Brannen.
On Saturday, Brannen won the 800-meter run with a time of 1:47.79, nearly blowing Auburn University senior Fred Sharpe off the track.
“It was awesome,” Schramski said. “He just killed guys on the last 75 yards. We went nuts.”
Michigan has not seen a national championship in indoor track since 1998 when Kevin Sullivan won the indoor mile. And now Brannen holds the 800-meter run school indoor and outdoor records.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Brannen said. “Two of my goals have been to make the Olympics and win a championship – to win as a sophomore is more than I have asked for. I cried with my parents.”
Not only did Brannen win it, but he left Otukile Lekote of South Carolina – the two year reigning national champion – dangling in seventh place.
“It is amazing to see one of your teammates win something so great,” sophomore Seth Waits said. “We were jumping up and down.”
Brannen has had an amazing indoor season, and when asked to reflect on how he felt about it, he expressed how happy it went. He had several small, nagging injuries that put a slight hamper on his training, but managed to keep his strength and confidence up.
In addition, Brannen put high praise on his teammates’ encouragement and camaraderie.
“The unique thing about our team is how close we all are – as a whole we are pretty tight, and that has helped us perform well. Also, I think real highly of Ron as a person and a coach.”
Still, there were more fantastic things to come for Michigan this weekend.
Aside from Brannen’s great performance, there was another impressive occurrence at Friday’s events.
Michigan’s distance medley relay, which included Brannen, Waits and freshmen Andrew Ellerton and Nick Willis, took third in the relay against Villanova and Stanford with a time of 9:29.76.
The race started off with Brannen running 1,200 meters in 2:53, then passing the lead to Waits, who ran 400 meters in 47.7 seconds. Waits kept Michigan in the lead.
“I knew I could not lose my position,” Waits said.
Then when it came to 800-meters, Ellerton did his job, running a time of 1:48, dropping Michigan to second place.
That’s when Arkansas caught up to Michigan, and it was time for quick moves.
Willis was last to run with one mile of the race to go, and he flew by Arkansas’ runner. It was up to him to win. Willis ran with all his might up the straight-away, neck-and-neck with Villanova and Stanford, finishing with a time of 3:59.
“It was tremendous,” Warhurst said. “They were coming down the straight-away and then just separated off at the very end. It came down to the last 20 meters.”
Michigan’s third-place finish was still big for the Wolverines – it broke Michigan’s record by three seconds.
It was an important and thrilling weekend for the Wolverines, and each had many good things to say even before the trip.
The Wolverines anticipated an amazing atmosphere at the championships because each runner knew he was running against some of the best in the world.
“That’s why I came to the United States – to run against the best,” Willis the New Zealand native, said.
Willis received 12th place in the 3,000-meter run. Although it was not a national championship title, Willis is still considered a champion among fellow teammates.
“He ran as best he could,” Schramski said. “In the middle of the race, he looked up at (the Michigan crowd) and smiled – it was just great.”
“He gave it everything he had. It was a great performance on his part,” Waits said.
Willis took a nonchalant approach to the 3,000-meter run on account of not feeling too well. He had been suffering from a mild cold prior to the NCAAs and was worn thin by Friday’s victory.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a good, day because I was tired from (Friday),” Willis said. “I looked up and smiled at the guys because I wanted to thank them all for being there for me.”
According to the Wolverines, the environment in Arkansas was incredible not solely because of the tough competition, but also due to the overwhelming enthusiasm and encouragement of the fans – especially Michigan ones.
“We had a trumpet and were singing the Michigan fight song,” Schramski said. “We were the loudest guys there with only 20 of us.”