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SEASON PREVIEW: Track programs look for encore after banner 2015

By Jake Knabel on Jan. 12, 2016 in Track & Field

By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications

At a glance
MEN
Head coach: Kregg Einspahr (24th year)
2015 indoor finishes: 2nd (GPAC); 5th (NAIA)
2015 outdoor finishes: 1st (GPAC); 1st (NAIA)
2015 All-Americans returning: Cody Boellstorff (*hammer), Matthew Chapa (4x400), Zach Lurz (discus, hammer, *shot, weight), CJ Muller (4x400, *600m), Jose Rojas (shot), Josh Slechta (hammer, *weight), Jaap van Gaalen (4x400), Lucas Wiechman (decathlon, heptathlon, pole vault)
2015 All-Americans lost: Brandon Cook (decathlon, heptathlon), Trey Farmer (hammer), Tai Pleasant (4x400), Brandon Ramos (heptathlon, pole vault)
*National champion

WOMEN
Head coach: Kregg Einspahr (24th year)
2015 indoor finishes: 2nd (GPAC); 11th (NAIA)
2015 outdoor finishes: 2nd (GPAC); 5th (NAIA)
2015 All-Americans returning: Stephanie Coley (hammer, shot), Liz King (hammer, javelin), Cynthia Mick (pole vault), Kali Robb (hammer, weight), Katricia Svoboda (javelin), Kim Wood (1,000m)
2015 All-Americans lost: Cassie Starks (pole vault)

Season Outlook
Of the 19 Bulldogs who earned All-America status in either indoor or outdoor track last season, 14 return following a 2015 season that could reasonably referred to as the best ever in program history, especially when considering combined national finishes. The program still buzzes from the surprise outdoor national title the Concordia men celebrated back in May in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Led by 2015 national champions Cody Boellstorff (hammer) and Zach Lurz (shot put), the throwing squad appears poised for another big season for Bulldog teams that look to have greater balance in 2016. The additions of such athletes as freshmen Mackenzie Gravo (pole vault), Samantha Liermann (throws) and a strong group of 800 meter runners will lessen the blow of the few key performers who have moved on.

“We didn’t have huge losses to graduation. We have the basic core back that we had last year,” said 24th-year head coach Kregg Einspahr, the 2015 NAIA men’s outdoor national coach of the year. “I think one more year down the road we’re that much better. Kim Wood for instance is going to be that much better. She’s got a lot more confidence going into her last year here. We have some new faces that are going to really help us as well. I think we’re improved and we do have some new faces that will replace any losses we had to graduation.”

Early indicators have been positive. At the team’s annual Blue-White meet (hosted on Dec. 11), nine different throwers posted national qualifying marks. Lurz, already an eight-time All-American heading into his junior season, headlines the stable of throwers that produced 18 total All-America plaques in 2015. Following the season, “The Thrower’s Page” ranked Concordia as the top throwing program in the NAIA for 2015.

Considering the wealth of experience and accolades contained on the 2016 roster, expectations are appropriately high for what 2014 javelin national champ Liz King and her teammates can accomplish this season. Many of the familiar names are back, including Stephanie Coley, Kali Robb, Jose Rojas, Josh Slechta (2015 weight throw national champion) and Katricia Svoboda – all past All-American long tossers.

“It’s really cool to see how the majority of people that are throwers are upperclassmen now,” King said. “Before we had bigger groups in the freshman and sophomore classes and now it’s grown. Now we’re seniors and juniors. Now we’re hitting our peaks in our progressions. I’m really excited to see how this year turns out. Last year was awesome. We had an incredible amount of success. I hope we can keep going with it.”

The unprecedented work of the throwers powered a program that showed that it really has no limits. The men have won three of the last four GPAC track and field championships and the women have consistently been the top challenger to Doane’s reign at the top. In addition, Bulldog teams finished no lower than 11th at the 2015 indoor and outdoor national championship meets.

There’s been a new standard set that All-American Lucas Wiechman (pole vault, multi-events) says has made for an even more motivated group. “It really shows our potential,” Wiechman said. “We did that last year and I was surprised. Now what can we do if we know we can do it again? It motivates the freshmen coming in seeing how high of a standard we have set.”

Wiechman has been part of unique pipeline from Wisner-Pilger High School, which has also funneled the Buene sisters (Anna and Christine), freshman Samuel Ferguson (mid distance) and Liermann to Concordia. Ferguson and Liermann are new faces that will be afforded the opportunity to make an immediate impact. The same can be said for freshmen Thomas Taylor (distance) and Tori Beran (hurdles). Beran bolsters a hurdles group that includes budding junior Alayna Daberkow, who will focus on track alone this season after also playing basketball her first two years as a Bulldog.

The pole vaulters, coached by assistant Jason Berry, will have a significant say in the heights reached by the 2016 Bulldogs. GPAC champion Cassie Starks has exhausted her eligibility, but the likes of Cynthia Mick and Wiechman provide star power. Berry expects Mick and Gravo to challenge Starks’ school records in the indoor and outdoor pole vault.

On the track, Einspahr knows what he has in standout performers CJ Muller (2015 600-meter All-American) and Wood (2015 1,000-meter All-American). All Wood did at last year’s indoor GPAC meet was win three individual conference titles in a performance Einspahr called one of the most impressive he’d seen in his career. Meanwhile, Muller is the backbone of another stellar men’s 4x400 meter relay that could also feature All-Americans in Matthew Chapa and Jaap van Gaalen.

When looking across the board, Einspahr sees few weaknesses on either of his men’s or women’s teams. Concordia spent the offseason trying to shore up shortcomings on the track and in the jumps. It’s already a high probability that the throws, pole vault and multi-events will be strengths on both sides.

“I think we have a nicely balanced team,” Einspahr said. “We’re going to be strong in a lot of different areas. I think we’re going to be improved in our middle distances. We have some very good long sprinters. I think we’re going to have some points coming in the hurdles. The multi-events are very strong for us. We should be strong in the pole vault. I think our relays are going to be pretty good. In addition to our throws group, I think we’re going to have a number of areas where we score big points in. I think we’re going to be better than last year overall.”

Along with the better overall balance comes a swagger that goes along with the new red national championship banner that hangs in the Fieldhouse.

“As a team I think we have a lot more confidence,” Muller said. “I think we’ve cemented Concordia on the national track stage as a solid team that will come out and compete. We lost a few guys from last year who scored. The freshman class came in and it’s a big class. They’re excited. They saw what we did last year and they want to carry on that tradition. It’s been a real motivator to go out and train the best this fall so we have good results this season again.”

While Einspahr pegs Concordia as a stronger outdoor team, the indoor version of the Bulldogs has typically high expectations. Says Muller, “The goal for track now is always a conference championship.” Both Concordia teams are anxious to get things started nearly seven months after a thrilling finish to 2015.

“That’s where it should be,” King said of the expectations that greet the 2016 Bulldogs. “I think that should be every team’s goal (to win conference championships). You should be competing hard for conference and nationals. You shouldn’t be complacent with winning one meet. I don’t think that’s where our focus should lie. You want to win.”

The season officially gets underway Friday and Saturday (Jan. 15-16) at the Holiday Inn Invitational, which will take place inside the Devaney Center on the University of Nebraska campus. Several Bulldogs will also compete at Saturday’s Nisely Invite hosted by Doane.