After last year’s dismal seventh-place finish, the Aggies were ready to show the Big West Conference what they could do.
UC Davis finished with 136.5 points as the runner-up to a dominant squad from Cal State Northridge (176.5) and just ahead of rival Cal Poly (121.5).
“Going from where we were last year in seventh place to be second place is absolutely huge,” said coach Jon Vochatzer. “After last year I think everyone got a real good feel of what had to happen, what we had to do. Everyone just did a great job.“
While Cal State Northridge took the lead from the gun, Cal Poly and UC Davis were battling it out the entire meet. UC Davis moved into second place after the 400m on day two.
Day one started off with some solid showings in the field, led by sophomore Ed Orgon in the shot put. He threw an impressive 16.73m to take third in a very closely contested event; the top six all broke 16m.
In the high jump, Ben Nelson and Ross Tate both cleared 2.04m to finish third and fifth, respectively.
The Aggies started the track portion of the meet off right, as junior Russ Pfaff dominated the 3,000m steeplechase, clocking in at 9:00.59. Not only did it give him the win in the first track event of the meet, but it also made him the first Aggie to ever win a Big West track and field title.
Pfaff wasn’t done after his historic win. Less than a half hour later, he was back on the track for the heats in the 1,500m.
“The ironman of the meet had to be Russ Pfaff,” Vochatzer said. “He ran the steeple on Friday, won it in a controlled race. Twenty-five minutes later he changed shoes, came out and qualified for the 1,500m final.
“Then Saturday he came out and finished sixth, and that was a fast race. To be able to go out and do that double – he was still trying to recover from winning the steeple – that was great.“
Just before the 1,500m final – in which sophomore Jon Peterson and junior Jon Sees also scored in seventh and eighth, respectively – there was excitement in the 4x100m relay. With freshman phenom Gavin Banks injured, the Aggies used another freshman on anchor: decathlete Robert Neely.
“We got second place and the whole place erupted,” Vochatzer said. “I was hoping we could be in the mix, but I didn’t think we could get second place [without Banks]. The guys before – Jazz Trice, Micah Grant and Polly Gnepa – did a super job. Polly ran an unbelievable curve, and gave Robert a great lead. That set the tone to start off [the day] and then we just took off like wildfire.“
A half hour later, Trice and Gnepa were back on the track, this time for the 110m hurdles. As expected, they took the top two spots, with Trice getting the win in 13.85 and Gnepa – who would go on to finish sixth in the 100m as well – finishing solidly in second at 14.03.
“It feels great,” Trice said. “Last year I came in second and knew I had a shot at winning this year. It was one of my goals coming into this season, and I am very glad I accomplished it.“
While Gnepa was between events, sophomore Thomas Phillips stole the show, as he dominated the field in the 400m. He clocked a 47.05 to win, qualified for regionals and shattered the old school record. He is generally considered a long hurdler.
“My goal was to score as many points as possible for the team,” Phillips said. “That meant winning the 400m, so I am happy I accomplished that. It was definitely strange not running the hurdles, but I realized that for the team it was better to focus on the open 400m. I knew Alex [Wilright] would take care of business in the hurdles, though, so I wasn’t too worried.“
That’s exactly what Wilright did.
In arguably the most convincing victory on the track in the meet, Wilright clocked 50.82 to win by nearly two full seconds. That gap opened up in the second half of the race, something new for Wilright.
“In the first 200m the race was a lot closer than I expected,” Wilright said. “In the last 200m I began to get some separation from the field. Overall, I feel like my performance was decent. I don’t want to get too excited yet because the real celebrating will be after nationals.“
Day two also saw some solid marks in the field, as Broc Bennett took fourth in the javelin throw (56.70m) while the long jump saw Igor Seriba (fifth) and Tolu Wusu (sixth) both jump 14.87m.
Some big points came in the pole vault, as Jamie Feaster took sixth in 4.90m and Ethan Ostrom again cleared 5.05m to take second.
Arguably the most exciting race of the day – as is often the case – was the 4x400m relay. The team of Matt Council, Andre Gaston, Wilright and Phillips took second – and set a new school record – in 3:10.28. UC Irvine, who was in third behind UC Riverside and UC Davis going into the last leg, won in 3:10.22.
“We had great position on Riverside going into the anchor leg,” Wilright said. “Thomas stepped up and caught Riverside’s anchor. But Irvine had an anchor that split 45. There isn’t too much that can be done to hold off a 45. We just barely got edged out in the last meter. However, on the bright side we broke the school record.“
While he may not have won a title or set any records, senior Pat Parsel ran a gutsy race in the 10,000m on Friday night. Despite having a personal best over 90 seconds behind the top seed – whom he beat – Parsel, known as “Rocket Pop” by his teammates, was able to finish his Aggie career with a fourth-place finish.
“Pat sort of redeemed himself as far as just trying to be up there and finding out who he is, what he can get done,” Vochatzer said. “The race broke apart about halfway through. There were maybe six guys in the lead pack. With 500m to go Pat just shot out like a rocket, and I was like, ‘Oh God, there he goes!’ He held it until the last 150m or so, then the other guys shot by him. Just to be in the hunt like that was fantastic.“
While it wasn’t a win, the Aggies are more than content with their second appearance at the Big West Championships – and know there is more to come.
“I’m extremely happy with our team’s performance as a whole,” Trice said. “We placed second and scored almost 100 more points than we did last year, which is incredible.
“We owe a lot of it to our team’s well-connected dynamic this year. I’ve never been part of a team with such passion. Everyone’s strength and support for each other really helped all of us pull through to finish an amazing season.“
ALEX WOLF-ROOT can be reached at email@example.com.