With just two regular season meets left before the men’s and women’s track and field teams head into post-season competition, men’s head coach Dave Gottsleben and women’s head coach Lucky Huber are focused on injured athletes rehabbing in time for the Summit League tournament while making sure the rest of their teams are ready to go.
The teams will compete May 2-3 at the Howard Wood Relays in Sioux Falls. Gottsleben and Huber both said it is the biggest South Dakota meet, as it is a combined high school-college meet.
“It’s a fun meet for our kids, because all of our South Dakota athletes competed in it in high school,” Huber said. “It’s a hard meet since it’s right before finals so we try to balance pushing the kids to be ready and making sure they get everything done for school this week. But it’s a nice meet to see their high school friends and coaches.”
First-year jumper Ashley Thompson said the Howard Wood Relays are serving a dual purpose for her.
“In triple jump, I hope to have a meet that was as good as or better than last Tuesday’s (at the Mount Marty Twilight Meet),” Thompson said. “I’ll also use it to get ready for conference.”
At the Mount Marty meet, Thompson’s high jump was the second-best in school history, along with the current second-best in the Summit League and 20th in the NCAA West.
On the men’s side, Gottsleben said his main focus at Howard Wood is on the relay teams.
“Right now, we lead the conference in the relays, but we can improve those times this week,” he said.
In the field events, Gottsleben said he expects the men to do well even though they’ll be lacking in depth.
First-year thrower Dustin Valind, who was named the Summit League’s Outdoor Track and Field Men’s Athlete of the Week for the week of April 22, has his goals set high for Howard Wood.
“Hopefully I can beat everyone except (senior thrower) Cody (Snyder),” Valind said.
The teams will then head to Lincoln, Neb., for the Nebraska Invite May 10 for one last meet before the conference tournament.
“It’s a meet for anyone who wants one last chance to compete or move up in conference standings,” Huber said. “We aren’t making anyone go, so our graduating athletes won’t have to miss graduation for it.”
Post-season competition officially starts May 15-17 with the Summit League Championships. On the women’s side, the team is looking to place in the top two.
“We just want to get in and compete,” Huber said. “This is what the whole season builds toward. It’s in Fargo, so North Dakota State is the favorite, but we’re in a good spot. We’ve had some injuries, so we’ve had some younger kids step in and prove themselves.”
Thompson said the team was a bit fresher for the indoor Summit League Championship.
“The competition was really there for indoor,” she said. “We have a lot of injuries so the competition might not be there. All you can do is continue to train. If we continue to do what we’ve been doing, we’ll do well.”
Right now, senior pole vaulter Bethany Firsick is out with a broken hand, and sophomore pole vaulter Emily Grove and senior jumper Megan Glisar redshirted for the spring season, so Huber said the team dynamics are a little different from the indoor season.
On the men’s side, Gottsleben said his team also has its fair share of injuries right now, but he’s still optimistic for the Summit League Championship.
“The rest of my coaches might think I’m crazy, but we can be really good. We can push North Dakota State,” he said. “It will be a lot to ask of my athletes, but if we put people in multiple events, we can score the points we need to win.”
Gottsleben said his job is to find a way to balance his team’s quality with its lack of depth.
“We’ve got great quality on the men’s team but very little depth,” he said. “We have to do what’s beneficial for the team but also make sure we’re not setting any athletes up for injuries.”
Valind said the team is doing what it can to be ready for the Summit League.
“The injured guys are rehabbing and the rest of us keep lifting and training so hopefully we can come out with a title,” Valind said.
While the Summit League meet is just the team’s first post-season competition, Gottsleben said it’s still the most important.
“National meets are cool, but conference meets are the epitome of college track and field,” he said. “This is the part of the season athletes love.”
Once conference is wrapped up, the top-ranked athletes in the nation will head to the NCAA West Preliminary Round, which is essentially the first round of the NCAA tournament. Athletes ranked in the top 48 in the western region in each event qualify for this meet.
Huber said USD will likely have 12-15 athletes competing in the preliminary round between the men’s and women’s teams.
The NCAA Outdoor Championships are June 11-15. Athletes who place in the top 12 of the preliminary round qualify for the NCAA meet, which wraps up the collegiate season.
Photo: Senior Kevin Sarekhani runs on the football field during track practice in the DakotaDome April 28. (Malachi Petersen/The Volante)