Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 19, 2013

Big Meet is always a big deal

Atchoo leads Stanford men against Cal in annual showdown

by Rick Eymer

Stanford junior Michael Atchoo was among the first in his family to break with tradition and attend college. First-year Cardinal track and field coach Chris Miltenberg is grateful to the Atchoo family, even if it took thousands of years to embrace education.

"My mom went to college but she was a stay-at-home mom," Atchoo said at a luncheon held earlier this week in conjunction with the annual Big Meet, a traditional dual meet between Cal and Stanford that has bucked its own tradition.

"My dad never went to college and there aren't many of my relatives, other than my generation, who attended college," Atchoo said. "It was my grandfather who finally approved it. He thought a college education would help us avoid feeling inferior."

Atchoo's three older sisters all have college degrees, are married, and enjoy their own careers. There's no chance of an inferiority complex in the family.

Atchoo just completed an indoor track and field season that included two school records, one in the mile and the other with the distance medley relay.

He raced to a 3:57.14 clocking to win the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title and better a mark set by Olympian Michel Stember (3:58.40) in 2000.

It's the fastest mile run by a Stanford athlete, indoors or outdoors, in 27 years. In fact, only Olympian Jeff Atkinson, who went 3:55.16 in 1986, has run the mile faster than Atchoo.

Individual achievements have been put on hold this week as both Cal and Stanford prepare for the 119th running of the Big Meet on Saturday at Stanford's Cobb Track and Angell Field, with field events beginning at 10:15 a.m. Running follows at 1 p.m., with the men's 1,600 relay wrapping things up at 4:10 p.m.

Stanford swept last year's meet, the men winning for a sixth straight time (106-57) and the women for a second straight season (122-41).

The dual meet is a relic of older days, when the emphasis was on competition rather than qualifying for the NCAA meet and running at major invitationals.

"This is all new to me," Miltenberg said. "This will be the first dual meet I have ever coached. It's extremely exciting. When I first saw it on our schedule I thought it would throw a wrench in our seasonal planning.. The more I learn about it, the more I get fired up."

And just like in most sports, the Cal-Stanford rivalry takes on a life of its own leading up to the meet.

"My freshman year I didn't know what to expect," said Atchoo. "I never thought a dual meet could be such a big deal. You learn quickly it's a lot of fun. You just compete and you don't have to worry about marks."

While the meet might be a new experience for Miltenberg, who came to Stanford from Georgetown, it's old hat for Cal coach Tony Sandoval, who is in his 30th year with the Bears' program.

"For one week, the world stops," Sandoval said. "There's nothing more important than the Big Meet. It's a very special event. Dual meets used to be the cornerstone of development."

(Sandoval spoke before news of the Boston Marathon bombing and the Waco factory explosion broke. His sentiments were echoed by all participants at the luncheon, who were all shocked at the subsequent news. Former Stanford women's coach Dena Evans participated in the marathon and returned home safely).

Atchoo will run both the 1,500 and 800. The oldest Big Meet record is in the 800. Stanford's Ernie Cunliffe sprinted to a 1:47.7 in 1960. Atchoo's personal best is 1:52.82.

Teammate and Atchoo's training partner Tyler Stutzman has a better chance at the record. He has a best of 1:50.59.

More importantly is the hope Atchoo and Stutzman can finish 1-2 in the middle distances to help the Cardinal men in what is considered a toss up. The women's competition also will be close.

Stutzman shares the distance relay record with Atchoo, and owns the seventh-fastest indoor mile (3:58.85) in Stanford history.

Stutzman swept the 800 and 1,500 in last year's Big Meet, clocking his PR to win the two-lapper.

Meanwhile, look for Stanford's Geoffrey Tabor to score in the shot out and discus — he won both loast season — and expect surprises.

"What swings the meet is who finishes second and third," Sandoval said.

Junior Kori Carter is easily Stanford's marquee female competitor. She was recently added to the women's watch list for the Bowerman Trophy, collegiate track and field's highest honor.

Carter has the fastest time in the world in the 400-meter hurdles this year, after blazing to a 54.71 to win the recent Jim Click Shootout in Tucson, Ariz. The time, coming in her season outdoor debut in that event, broke her own school record by 2 1/2 seconds.

Carter beat 2012 Olympic fifth-place finisher Georganne Moline in the race on Moline's home track. Carter's time would have been fast enough to win the 2012 NCAA championship and place her on the U.S. Olympic team.

Carter also ranks No. 15 on the season collegiate list in the 100 hurdles, with a best of 13.28.

The Cardinal is also strong in the distances and middle distances, highlighted by Justine Fedronic, who set the school record in the 800 last year and ran a personal best in the 1,500 at the Stanford Invitational.

Atchoo, who traces his family roots to Chaldea and Babylonia, kingdoms which existed somewhere between the 24th century and 6th century B.C. in present day Iraq, could have ended his athletic career before he began.

He was also Troy High's (Michigan) star running back in football and sustained two concussions during his senior year.

Atchoo also trained for his track and field season by running the streets of his hometown, even in the snow. He often found himself face down in it after slipping on black ice.

Running around a track just seems safer.

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