The image of junior Jeff Porter laid out on his chest across the finish line – eventually being carried off the track – was exactly what the Michigan track and field team was dreading this weekend.
After Porter pulled his hamstring two weeks ago at the Penn Relays, Michigan coach Ron Warhurst and the Michigan track and field team didn’t think he would be able to compete for a month.
But after missing two weeks of training to heal the hamstring and practicing at full speed on Wednesday, Porter had to convince his coaches to let him run in the Big Ten Championships. They agreed, but held him out of the 4×100-meter relay, hoping to get just one good race out of him with the cold and wet conditions that are especially worrisome for a hurdler with a tender hamstring.
And Porter delivered.
He won the race with a dive at the finish line, coming within one-hundredth of a new career-best time and helping the Wolverines to tie Illinois for fifth place, the team’s best finish since 1998.
“It’s really amazing that Jeff won (considering the hamstring pull),” Warhurst said. “We really weren’t sure at all if he was even going to be able to start and finish the race.”
Porter’s time of 13.94 seconds may have been one-hundredth of a second slower than his career-best time, but was one-hundredth faster than the second-place finisher, Illinois’s Andre English. Porter got out of the blocks quickly and looked to be the class of the field early. But he felt his hamstring tighten up around the seventh hurdle, and English was able to catch him at the final hurdle.
“Jeff is usually a strong finisher, so we knew something was wrong when the tempo totally changed around the seventh hurdle,” associate head coach Fred LaPlante said. “He had to really dig deep to win that race. He showed a lot of heart at the end with that dive.”
Porter’s Big Ten Championship was especially meaningful considering his struggles last year. After a freshman year in which he finished second in the 110-meter hurdles at the Big Ten Championships and earned Freshman of the Year honors, he struggled to an eighth-place finish at Big Tens last season.
“Jeff’s story is really a good one because he really is the guy who struggled with adversity and then overcame it,” LaPlante said. “We were doing all the right things last year, we just couldn’t put it together in the races. But Jeff has always been a good worker, and it was great to see him get a Big Ten Championship.”
But Porter was not the only contributor to Michigan’s fifth-place finish. Five different Wolverines established new career-best times in the final team event of the year. One of the standouts was sophomore Mike Woods, who finished as the runner-up in the highly competitive 1,500-meter field.
All the runners stayed close through the first 700 meters, which was when Wisconsin’s Chris Solinsky and Woods pulled away from the pack with a 55-second lap. Woods and Solinksy were neck-and-neck for the remaining laps until Solinsky was able to pull away rounding the final turn. Woods held on to finish in second with a career-best time of 3:45.89, a second and a half ahead of third-place finisher John Jefferson of Indiana.
“We knew that Solinsky would be tough, but I was more concerned with (Jefferson) from Indiana,” Warhurst said. “Mike just couldn’t get around (Solinksy), and I thought he stumbled a little bit with about 300 meters to go, and that could have affected him too.”
Warhurst was happy with the fifth-place finish, although he acknowledged that he couldn’t be truly happy until the team finished with a conference championship. But with 13 runners advancing to NCAA Regionals at the end of May in Knoxville, Tenn., after the fifth-place finish, the team can already consider the season a success.