GFU national champions
LA CROSSE, Wisc. -- The emotional swings in track and field can be wild and unpredictable, whether it's coming from out of nowhere to make the podium or having the expectations of a high ranking in a particular event dashed by an off day.
Those fluctuations also tend to accumulate to make chasing the team title, especially at the biggest meets, an emotionally risky endeavor, which is why team standings is just about the last thing George Fox coach John Smith wants his athletes thinking about.
That approach was put to the test last week as the Bruins led both the men's and women's competitions heading into the third and final day of the NCAA Division III outdoor track and field national championships.
The George Fox women's team kicked things off Saturday by winning the 4 x 100 relay title and added a pair of podium finishes from Dakota Buhler and Sarah King to enter the final event with a one-point lead over UMass Boston.
All the Beacons needed to pull level with GFU was an eighth-place finish, while anything better would give them the team title. Coming down the home stretch on the final lap, Washington University senior Annalise Wagner passed UMass Boston's Oliva Burnes to relegate the Beacons to eighth in the event and make them co-national champions with George Fox at 44 points apiece.
"It came down to that 4 x 400, but had we not gotten a trophy place, it still was an amazing three days, so getting that trophy was kind of an icing-on-the-cake moment," Smith said. "Before that the cake was pretty good."
The Bruin men, meanwhile, could not maintain their spot atop the leaderboard, but did place seventh to post the highest finish in program history.
"After the second day we were in the lead with both teams and it was more just a fun thing, cool to get some recognition," Smith said. "There was never pressure that we had to then go out and do it."
George Fox needed and got a lot of outstanding performances to earn the title, which is the school's third overall NCAA team championship regardless of sport.
That began with one of those out-of-nowhere podium finishes from Dakota Buhler, who had qualified for nationals at GFU's Final Qualifier event two weeks prior in the long jump and was ranked in the middle of the pack of 22 jumpers.
She jumped into the lead on her first jump, clearing 19 feet 2.5 inches, and that mark held up for third. The lone George Fox senior competing at nationals, Buhler added a fourth-place finish in the triple jump (39-3.25) Saturday to cap a stellar career.
"She's kind of been in the shadows the last three years with Charity Arn and Asia Greene," Smith said. "She's always been good, but this year she really broke out."
Junior Sarah King scored in two individual events, as well, placing fourth in the 400 (54.77) and fifth in the 200 (24.88). She also joined Kennedy Taube, Sara Turner and Lis Larsen on the winning 4 x 100 relay, which broke its own school record by crossing in at 46.55 seconds.
Also taking advantage of a late entry to the national meet was Stacy Koslowski, who was ranked 21st but set a new PR by clearing 5-7.25 to place third.
"It was a pretty incredible performance," Smith said.
The gutsiest performance of the meet, however, came from Annie Wright, who overcame a hamstring injury suffered at the Final Qualifier meet to place second in the decathlon.
"I honestly didn't think she was going to make it past the hurdle warm up, but she ended up slogging through the hurdles," Smith said. "It wasn't super pretty, but it was good enough. Each event was like that. She was in a lot of pain but at least she was able to do it."
On her first event of day two, Wright had to jump of her off leg in the long jump, which she had never done before. After a strong effort in the javelin, though, she moved into second place and battled through the 800 meters, placing ninth, to finish runner-up overall with 4,678 points.
"If she just walked in there and did mediocre when healthy she would win it pretty easily," Smith said. "It didn't work out that way. She did it the hard way, which is kind of cool. It was really neat to see her fight and battle."
Seth Nonnenmacher had the headline performance for the GFU men, crushing his first throw in the javelin for a new PR of 241-11.5. It was the longest throw in Division III all season and pretty much ended the competition right there, as it was good enough to win by 12 feet and give Nonnenmacher his second-consecutive NCAA title.
"He just launched one and everybody knew right when it left his hand that it was big," Smith said. "It flew super well and is a U.S. National qualifying mark, so he'll go to that meet at the end of June."
Alex Canchola also scored big points for the Bruins with his runner-up finish in the decathlon. He won the javelin portion with a PR throw of 190-1.25 to move into second and then took fifth in the final event, the 1,500 meters (4:30.31), to secure his spot.
The men's 4 x 100 relay team also capped off a stellar season, as Brock Rogers, Vernon Lott, Kenny May and Chris Polk took fourth in a new school-record time of 40.83.
The Bruins finished with 23 team points to stay in the top-10 and set a new high mark for the program.
"It doesn't always work out the way you draw it up, but it's always fun to go there and compete and see how it all shakes out," Smith said. "That was a pretty incredible performance to sit back and watch."