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Stanford looks for top finishes at NCAA track & field finals

 

Stanford brings 12 individuals and a relay team while looking for top finishes as the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Wednesday through Saturday at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field.

Of Stanford's 12, six have scored at this meet, nine will return next year, and two are freshmen. The Cardinal boasts two collegiate outdoor leaders -- Sean McGorty in the men's 5,000 meters and Olivia Baker in the women's 800.

Also seeking their first national titles are senior Claudia Saunders, runner-up in the women's 800 the past two years, and fifth-year senior Aisling Cuffe, the two-time Pac-12 cross country champion, who was second in the NCAA women's 5,000 indoors and outdoors in 2014.

Stanford has four men to Eugene, and each is a contender to reach the podium. In fact, three already have. The point total to beat is 12 from last year. If successful, it would mark a third year of progression.

A year ago, Dylan Duvio was third in the pole vault, Harrison Williams was fourth in the decathlon and McGorty eighth in the 5,000. Each returns -- all will be back next year -- and are joined by freshman Grant Fisher, one of the nation's outstanding young talents. He is competing in his first NCAA track championship, racing in the 5,000. So, the numbers aren't great for Stanford, but the quality certainly is.

Duvio and McGorty already have qualified for the Olympic Trials. In fact, McGorty, the collegiate 5,000 leader, has reached the Olympic standard as well. Williams is on the verge the Trials qualifying standard and could still get in even if he doesn't reach it. And Fisher is close as well.

The Stanford women number nine invidividual qualifiers plus a 4x400 relay team. Six have scored either in previous NCAA meets, indoors or outdoors. Three have NCAA runner-up finishes and five have finished among the top five.

Of particular interest is the women's 800, an event in which Stanford boasts collegiate outdoor leader a Baker and Saunders, the NCAA outdoor runner-up the past two years and Stanford's school record holder (2:00.63). The 1,500 includes sophomore Elise Cranny, a finalist last year, and fifth-year senior Molly McNamara, who has been something of a mentor to Cranny and has reached an NCAA meet for the first time, dropping five seconds off her lifetime best this outdoor season.

Other storylines for Stanford include the return of fifth-year senior Cuffe, the 2014 NCAA 5,000 runner-up, to NCAA competition because of injury, and the NCAA debut of freshman javelin thrower Mackenzie Little, the 2013 World Youth champion from Australia.

Here's a look at each event that includes a Stanford athlete:

Decathlon

Since coming to Stanford, Williams (a sophomore) has competed in nine multi-event competitions, and has broken a record in all but one. They include an American junior decathlon record, three school decathlon records, three Stanford freshmen decathlon records, a school heptathlon record, and a Stanford freshman heptathlon mark.

Williams first broke Bob Mathias' 1952 school record -- set while winning gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics -- last year at the Pac-12 Championships. Williams has since eclipsed it twice, most recently at the Texas Relays March 30-31.

Williams competed at the Texas Relays only 18 days after placing fourth at the NCAA indoor heptathlon. The NCAA Outdoor meet marks Williams first decathlon since then. He has achieved a lifetime best in all nine multi competitions since coming to Stanford. This time, he will attempt to improve upon his 7,842 school-record total from the Texas Relays, reach the 7,900 Olympic Trials standard, and improve upon his fourth-place finish from last year's NCAA Outdoor Championships.

Men's pole vault

Duvio (a junior) was third at NCAA Outdoors last year and has struggled at times this year, failing to reach the NCAA Indoor Championships or go higher than 17-3 3/4 in any indoor or outdoor meet before this outdoor postseason. But Duvio, who jumped 18-2 1/2 at NCAA's last year, appears back on track.

His two highest clearances have come in his past two meets. He was second at Pac-12's at 17-4 1/2 in adverse conditions, with the event delayed several hours by rain. And he followed with a 17-7 3/4 at the NCAA West Prelims despite havinng to jump indoors during a storm that caused havoc with the schedule in Lawrence, Kan.

Eugene is to Duvio's liking. Besides his lifetime best at Hayward Field at NCAA's, he jumped 17-8 1/2 at the 2015 U.S. Championships, placing ninth.

Men's 5,000

McGorty and Fisher, runners perhaps best known for the mile, are among the contenders in the 5,000, rather than the 1,500. McGorty, who ran a Stanford record 3:53.95 mile indoors, is the collegiate leader in the 5,000. At Stanford's Payton Jordan Invitational on May 1, McGorty earned the Olympic qualifying standard of 13:25.00, by running 13:24.25 -- ahead of Villanova's Patrick Tiernan, Syracuse's Justyn Knight, and Virginia Tech's Thomas Curtin.

In the second section of that event, freshman Fisher ran 13:39.42 in his debut at that distance. Fisher gained fame as a high school sub-4 miler, but also has great versatility. The 5,000, in which he has the 12th-fastest time in the country, gives Fisher a race with a little more control than in the 1,500, which can often be unpredictable. A case in point was at the Pac-12 Championships when Fisher and Oregon star Blake Haney failed to qualify for the final out of their heat. McGorty was fifth in the Pac-12 1,500 final.

Fisher has been treated with care by Chris Miltenberg, Stanford's Director of Track and Field. Fisher did not make his Stanford cross-country debut until the Pac-12 Championships and raced only once more, at NCAA's, placing 17th.

He redshirted in indoor track, but ran one memorable race unattached. At the Husky Classic, Fisher won the 3,000 over a star-studded field that included Izaic Yorks, Chad Noelle, Dorian Ulrey, and Patrick Corona. Fisher's time of 7:50.06 placed him No. 4 on the U.S. junior absolute 3,000 all-time list.

Women's discus and hammer

Two-time Pac-12 discus champion Valarie Allman reached the NCAA's in two events, including the hammer. The Stanford junior is in her third NCAA championship meet in the discus, placing fifth last year. She took up the hammer as a complement to the discus. This year, she added the weight throw and competed indoors for the first time. The improvement is staggering. Her best of 200-6 is a 20-foot improvement over last season and a 37-foot improvement over her freshman best. She is No. 2 all-time at Stanford in both events.

Women's javelin

Little extended a Stanford NCAA qualifying streak in the javelin to six years, following Eda Karesin (2011), Brianna Bain (2012-14), and Victoria Smith (2015). Little, the Pac-12 champion, has won four of her six competitions this season.

In her collegiate debut, she came within six inches of Bain's school record, throwing 183-4. A native of Sydney, Australia, Little won the 2013 World Youth Championships in the Ukraine, but hadn't thrown much since then because of an ailment and a focus on academics.

Women's 800

This has been Stanford's main event the past three years -- with two second-places, a third, and two sixths. Baker is the collegiate outdoor leader at 2:01.02 and the West Region Women's Track Athlete of the Year, but she is only No. 4 on Stanford's all-time list following three who have competed since 2013.

Baker dropped three seconds from her lifetime best at the Payton Jordan meet, achieving the Olympic standard. She is No. 6 in the U.S. right now. She has the speed to win an NCAA title -- as witnessed by her Pac-12 title in the 400 (53.20) -- but now has developed the strength and endurance to be a complete runner over 800 meters. It's not inconceivable to see Baker in first before she's done, perhaps as soon as this year.

Saunders, a senior with a double major of international relations, and Iberian and Latin American culture, also is poised to win a title. Saunders set the Stanford record of 2:00.63 in placing second last year, for the second consecutive year. She is in the best condition of her life and always peaks at NCAA's. Saunders, whose mother is French, has an added incentive of running for France in the Olympics. She has committed to running for France and needs to break the team's standard of 2:00 to earn passage to Rio.

Women's 1,500

Fifth-year senior McNamara is considered a mentor and inspiration to her teammates. She has overcome injury and an eating disorder and used her experience to help others, as the founder of Cardinal RHED, a mental-health advocacy group for Stanford student-athletes and run by student-athletes. Last year, she won Stanford's Donald Kennedy Award for her work on and off the track. This year, McNamara has shattered every lifetime best, including a five-second improvement in the 1,500 (4:15.22) and earned her first NCAA qualification.

Cranny, a sophomore, looks up to McNamara is many ways, but the Pac-12 champion is coming into her own. She is seeking a second consecutive finals appearance -- last year she was the first true freshman in four years to make a women's 1,500 final -- and an improvement upon her 10th-place finish.

Women's 5,000

Cuffe was the NCAA 5,000 runner-up indoors and outdoors in 2014, but has been racing the clock this season. Cuffe is trying to rebound from injuries that plagued her the past two years -- though she did get enough respite to win her second Pac-12 cross country title. Cuffe has raced only three times this outdoor season and twice in the 5,000. Her 16:16.02 on April 22 at the Stanford Twilight meet was enough to get her to the West Prelims as the No. 23 seed and she made the most of it, running a controlled 16:08.45 to advance to Eugene. Cuffe has a school and Pac-12 -record 15:11.13 from 2014 and has Olympic trials aspirations.

Vanessa Fraser, a junior majoring in symbolic systems with a concentration on neuroscience, continued to improve this season, running 15:41.64 at Payton Jordan. She will be seeking her first first-team All-America honor, after finishing 13th last year.

4x400 relay

Stanford's top four -- senior anchor Kristyn Williams and sophomores Baker, Michaela Crunkleton Wilson and Gaby Gayles -- raced together once this year and unleashed a 3:31.13 at the West Prelims. It was the No. 2 time in school history. However, Baker's involvement in the 800 may make reaching the final trickier if Stanford runs without her in the semifinals. Freshmen Missy Mongiovi likely will get the nod if Baker does not run. She was part of the team that ran 3:32.67 to set a Stanford Invitational record.

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