Men’s track still in hunt for Big Ten title

By Christopher Kennedy

Stephon Pamilton repeated as the Big Ten’s indoor 400-meter champion this March. While he hopes to repeat as the Big Ten outdoor 400-meter champion as well, Pamilton and his teammates also have bigger plans. He said he and other seniors like Vanier Joseph and Julian Smith want a conference championship ring before they graduate.

“Everything builds up to Big Tens. It’s what we get recognized on,” Pamilton said. “We put our entire team together, it’s not just a few guys here and a few guys there, but it’s the whole team and we come together collectively to make the one body that is Illini track.”

Illinois looks poised for a run at the Big Ten title. The team will head to West Lafayette, Indiana, with a No. 20 national ranking. They should be right in the mix for the team title along with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State.

Those are the same three teams Illinois finished behind at Indoor Big Tens. While the team had some individual highlights, it left the meet disappointed. Pamilton and DJ Zahn finished first and seconod in the 400-meter run, but the team didn’t perform as well as it would have liked.

After the fourth-place finish, the Illini have had a strong outdoor season. One of the highlights came at the Illinois Twilight Invite on April 12. The meet marked Illinois’ first home outdoor meet since 2010. On the night that the team’s seniors were recognized, Vanier Joseph ran the nation’s fastest time in the 110-meter hurdles.

Joseph will attempt to defend his Big Ten 110-hurdle title this weekend before moving on to regionals.

Illinois soared to No. 14 in the nation after being crowned Hy-Vee Cup co-champions for the second year in a row at this year’s Drake Relays, the Illini’s biggest regular-season meet. The rank was Illinois’ highest ever midseason rank and it came off of an impressive performance. Illinois tied with Arkansas, one of the best programs in collegiate track, and nearly won the title outright. It came down to the 4×400-meter relay, where Illinois finished second, 0.35 seconds behind Arkansas.

Apart from the relays, Drake also demonstrated the emergence of Cam Viney as a national player in the 400-meter hurdles. Viney came in third in the race behind the top-two ranked 400-meter hurdlers in the country at the time: Kansas’ Michael Stigler and Nebraska’s Miles Ukaoma. Viney will get to toe the line again against Ukaoma and the rest of Nebraska’s strong 400 hurdle team.

At Big Tens, Viney will be joined in the event by freshman David Kendziera, who had a breakout meet of his own at Iowa’s Musco Twilight. Kendziera took fourth place in 51.27 and the performance launched him into the event’s national rankings for the first time this season at No. 27.

“That performance was the most important performance of the year because he’s a person that we weren’t expecting to step up and score, and now he can actually do that. He can reach that high level that we need him to,” junior Brandon Stryganek said. “He’s earned his worth every single meet.”

Another athlete who has come on strong this season in Stryganek’s eyes is junior triple jumper Brendan Tanthavong. Tanthavong has a chance to score at Big Tens after missing all of last year due to injury.

Senior pole vaulter Cody Klein has also come on strong throughout the season

“My goal is to perform the best I can to help my team be put into a good position to take home the team title,” Klein said. “I’m going to have to put up some big points in the vault because if I don’t Nebraska will and Minnesota of course will, too.”

After a strong outdoor season, the Illini are ready for a chance at the conference title. Beyond Big Tens, the top-48 athletes in each event and the top-24 relay teams compete at the NCAA Regional in Fayetteville, Arkansas. That meet qualifies athletes to nationals in Eugene, Oregon.

The Illini 4×100 and 4×400 teams will get to face the Razorbacks again on their home track after falling by hundredths of a second and tenths of a second, respectively, to Arkansas at the Drake Relays. Joseph will get a chance to punch his ticket to nationals after missing out by 0.01 seconds last year. Kendziera and several other Illini will try to make the top 12 of their events for the chance to compete at Hayward Field on college track’s biggest stage.

But for now, the Illini are focused on Big Tens and taking home a team conference championship.

“I truly believe that we have a special team this year, a special group of guys and this year can we go and accomplish some great things,” Stryganek said. “Our coaches say that we have no limits.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected]