“If we don”t win (the Big Ten Championship) I”ll be surprised,” senior tri-captain Ike Okenwa said.
That is the attitude that the Michigan track team is taking indoors this season. The combination of dedication to conditioning and an outstanding freshman class has primed the team for a run at the conference championship.
Summer workouts ran five days a week and were voluntary for players in the area, but the number of athletes at the workouts consistently reached double digits.
“This year we got really serious about it,” Okenwa said. “We”re focused.”
The seventh-place finish at last year”s Big Ten Championship still leaves a bad taste in the Wolverines” mouths.
But this is a different team, having graduated nine seniors and signing 15 talented freshmen.
“We have a pretty nice lineup with good athletes at each position,” said assistant coach Fred LaPlante.
The freshman class is headlined by miler Alan Webb and sprinter Nathan Taylor.
Webb was the first high-school runner in the United States to break the four-minute mile and was recently named Verizon Youth Athlete of the Year. Webb won the Big Ten Championship in cross-country and finished 11th at the NCAA championships. He was awarded Big Ten Athlete of the Year honors in cross-country.
“I”m glad we got that guy coming in,” Okenwa said. “He raises the bar for everybody.”
Nathan Taylor is the Canadian Junior Champion in the 100-meter.
Getting Taylor to commit was a major accomplishment for the coaching staff.
“For us that”s a real coup” LaPlante said. “Most major sprinters don”t come to the Midwest and Northeast. ”
Also new to the team is former wide receiver Brent Cummings. Cummings played on the football team last year and promises to add a spark in the sprints. While those races were not particularly strong for Michigan last year, the new season has brought in new expectations.
The combination of Okenwa, Taylor, Cummings and Derek Applewhite could be explosive. “They will be a formidable foursome at sprints,” LaPlante said.
But it is the distance runners that are the strength of this team.
Along with Webb, senior tri-captain Mike Wisniewski hopes to build on an All-America performance in cross-country. Wisniewski has won the Big Ten title in the 10,000-meter outdoors for the past two years.
Senior Jeremy Schneider has the ability to be one of the top 600-meter runners in the conference. Terrance Rindler, Brian Turner and Mark Pilja provide for a very deep team in the distances.
In the field events, senior Brent Scheffer hopes to have a big year in the pole vault, and senior Robert Arnold has shown an abundance of potential in the high jump.
“We”ve been waiting for (Arnold) to blossom,” LaPlante said. “It”s time for him to put up.”
The team will kick off the 2002 season with the Jack Harvey Invitational on Jan. 6. The Wolverines will host Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Detroit and Hillsdale at the Indoor Track Building. The meet will be the only warm-up before the year”s first dual meet against Indiana.
“We have a good blend of freshman talent and veteran leadership,” LaPlante said. “We”re looking forward to an exciting season.”