Nebraska track coach Gary Pepin is a happy man after the men’s track team won a conference championship last weekend at the Big Ten indoor meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
For Pepin, the season is a failure if Nebraska didn’t win a conference championship, and that happened the previous two years, with the men’s and women’s team not winning either the indoor or outdoor meets.
Now the Huskers are back on top, and it was also the first Big Ten championship for any Nebraska team during this academic year.
The goal each year is to win the conference meet, Pepin said. He knows track coaches at other schools who for a variety of reasons will never have a chance to win a conference championship, and to Pepin, that sounds miserable.
“If I wasn’t in a position where I had a chance to win a championship, I’d be out of there in a heartbeat,” Pepin said. “That wouldn’t be any fun for me at all. And I wouldn’t care how much money they paid me. Because if I’m going to play the game, I want to play the game to win. I’m not interested in getting second or third.”
It was the fifth Big Ten title for the Husker men since joining the conference for the 2012 track season, with three being indoors. Baseball, with one, is the only other Nebraska men’s program with a conference championship since joining the league.
Nebraska won the Big Ten meet with 93 points, just ahead of runner-up Indiana with 91.
Nebraska winning the meet came down to the final event, the 4x400 relay. Indiana had taken a 90-89 lead, so Nebraska needed to finish ahead of the Hoosiers in the relay. Nebraska finished fifth in the event, and Indiana, running in a different heat, finished eighth.
The relay runners knew before the race what they had to do. Givon Washington, a sophomore from Texas, ran the first leg of the race, and had to avoid a collision between runners that could have ended Nebraska’s title hopes.
It was a great feeling to help Nebraska win the meet, Washington said.
“It makes you feel like you actually did something worthwhile,” said Washington, whose only event of the meet was the relay.
Indiana was the favorite going into the meet because it had a lot athletes at the top of the season charts, and was good in the distance events where athletes can run multiple races.
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Nebraska doesn’t have any superstars, reflected by the fact that only three men qualified for the NCAA indoor championship, so Nebraska needed a total team effort to win. Each team is allowed to have 32 athletes in the meet, and Nebraska had 22 earn team points in an individual event or relay. Nebraska scored in 12 of the 18 events.
“The people that were scheduled to score in an event, they better score or we’re in trouble, and most of those people took care of business,” Pepin said. “Like Mayson Conner went in as the favorite in the high jump. Well, he won the high jump.”
The Huskers winning may not have been expected going into the year. Nebraska finished second at the indoor meet last year with 93½ points, but only 29½ of those points came from Huskers on the roster this year.
But Nebraska got a lot of points in the meet from its last recruiting class, with freshmen or transfers scoring 39 points, led by Conner, and also George Kusche in the distance events.
“It’s the first time that we’ve had guys in a distance race that have done that well for a long, long time,” Pepin said. “And not only did that help the team, but it took some points away from other schools that were our competitors as well.”
Four Nebraska track and field athletes have qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships.
Mayson Conner (high jump), Jared Seary (heptathlon), Cale Wagner (heptathlon) and Angela Mercurio (triple jump) will represent the Huskers in Birmingham, Alabama. The meet starts March 8.
Conner, a freshman from York, ranks 11th nationally in the high jump with a leap of 7 feet, 3¾ inches, and he won a Big Ten championship.
Seary is seeded seventh in the heptathlon with a score of 5,757, and Wagner (5,565) is seeded 15th in the event.
Mercurio, who will be making her second indoor nationals appearance, ranks 14th nationally in the triple jump with a mark of 43-6. She won a Big Ten championship last week.