Last year, the Nebraska men’s track team finished in fourth place at the Big Ten Conference indoor championship and third at the conference outdoor meet, but all that really means is that the Huskers didn’t win.

It was the first time in three seasons that the Huskers didn’t win the championship at either of the conference meets.

“To me, in those meets, you either win the conference, or you lose it,” said Nebraska coach Gary Pepin, who knows a lot about winning conference championships, with 72 combined team titles in men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track. “Is fourth place better than fifth? Yeah, but it wasn’t a win.”

The goal is to win conference championships, and Pepin thinks the Husker men will have a chance to do that again this season. That process speeds up this weekend when Nebraska has its first track meet of the indoor season. The Huskers will host the Graduate Classic, a 19-team meet at the Devaney Sports Center, on Friday and Saturday.

That’s the first of four indoor meets Nebraska will host. The Big Ten championship is Feb. 23-24 in Geneva, Ohio.

Pepin said that the 2017 conference outdoor meet was disappointing. The Husker men finished in third place, 20 points behind team champion Penn State. The Husker women’s team was sixth.

“With the men we went in knowing that we had a good chance to win the meet, and we just had one issue after another in the meet,” Pepin said. “We had people falling down, we had people getting hurt. And Penn State, at home, it was like they were touched with gold, and they could do no wrong.”

The Husker men won the Big Ten indoor meet in both 2015 and 2016. But last season the Huskers were hurt by a few injuries and dropped to fourth place.

“Our top priority is to win the conference, and then to try and get in the top 10 in the national meet,” Pepin said. “That in the past has kind of been a little bit what the athletic directors preferred, and what we preferred, because if you’re going to try to really place high in the national meet, you almost have to take a different approach in your recruiting and how you distribute your scholarships because you can go to the national meet with not very many people and really do well, if they’re good enough. So those are generally full-scholarship people, and of course in track and field we only have 12½ (scholarships) for the men, but we have 21 events.”

Pepin hasn’t discussed with new Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos if the goal should be focused more on winning conference team championships or doing really well at nationals.

Track is one of the sports where a scholarship can be split among several athletes, and at Nebraska it’s rare for an athlete to be on full scholarship.

“We want to try and cover all the events that are out there, which means you’re probably going to have to break up your scholarships,” Pepin said. “You’re going to have some kids that are maybe getting books, and somebody if they’re good enough they’re getting a great, big scholarship. And lots of kids that you’re recruiting that get no aid at all, and so you’re going out and really have to work hard to get those kids because they’re getting offered scholarships to other places.”

Track scholarships are also shared with the cross country team. Some schools have decided their best chance to be successful is in cross country, and give scholarships to more athletes who run both cross country and track.

Nebraska returns several of its top athletes from last season, including Kaiwan Culmer. He was the Huskers’ only NCAA indoor championship qualifier last season, finishing sixth in the triple jump.

Nebraska will benefit from the return of Malcolm White, whose 2017 season was shortened by injury. White has top-10 all-time marks in the 60 meters and 200 meters, and owns three Big Ten silver medals in his career. White is healthy now, Pepin said, but he won’t compete in the first meet of the season.

Antoine Lloyd, who also was injured throughout the 2017 indoor season, will look to contend for conference titles in the 60 meters and 60-meter hurdles, events he finished second and third in, respectively, as a sophomore in 2016.

Cody Walton also returns as the Big Ten indoor heptathlon champion. Distance runner Wyatt McGuire is injured and may not be able to compete in the indoor season.

Pepin expects the women's team to improve on last year’s eighth-place finish at the indoor conference meet. But one of the top athletes, pole vaulter Andy Jacobs, broke her wrist last week and will miss the indoor season.

Tiani Reeves has joined the track team after being on the Nebraska volleyball team for two seasons. She’ll do the triple jump, but won’t compete in the first meet.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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