The Mission Continues Florida Gators Track & Field 2017 Season Preview

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The University of Florida track and field program opens its 2017 campaign Saturday, and recent history makes it difficult to expect anything other than another year of trophy-raising celebrations on infields and gator chomps atop championship podiums.

Florida’s men won their sixth national title since 2010—more than any other Division I team during that span—with a 62-point performance at last season’s NCAA Outdoor Championships.

The program’s latest title was perhaps its most impressive to date, given the fact it followed a seventh-place finish at NCAA Indoor Championships and a sixth-place finish at SEC Outdoor Championships.

Just two other teams since 1992 won an outdoor national title after finishing outside the top five indoors. Moreover, no team since at least 1965 took lower than fourth place at an outdoor conference meet and went on to win the national meet.

The title also marked the 15th time in the last 16 NCAA Championships the Gators placed third or higher. Although its run of 14 consecutive top-three finishes ended at NCAA Indoors, Florida’s phenomenal consistency both indoors and outdoors was something previously achieved by only Arkansas (1992-2000) and UTEP (1975-82).

Yes, the men lose three of the top quarter-milers to come through Gainesville, including Olympic gold medalist Arman Hall. Sure the Gators also lose three legs of their 4x100 relay team that took fourth place at the national meet. And the near-unprecedented success has to take a yearlong hiatus, right?

Anyone expecting a dip should consider the following, though: six returning Gators accounted for 39 of their 49 individual points scored at NCAA Outdoors.

From L to R: Anders Eriksson, Kunle Fasasi, TJ Holmes, Eric Futch, KeAndre Bates.

That does not even include rising senior All-American half-milers Andres Arroyo and Ryan Scnhulle, neither of whom reached the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

While head coach Mike Holloway will tinker with numerous lineups in pursuit of last season’s 13 relay points (and another eight at NCAA Indoors), the USTFCCCA Coaches Hall of Fame’s newest inductee seemingly always develops the perfect combinations. Since 2003, Holloway’s first year as head coach, UF has scored in both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays at the same NCAA Outdoor Championships 10 times. The Gators totaled 13-plus points in seven of those instances.

Doubt these Gators at your own peril.

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On the women’s side, a mix of returning NCAA scorers and immediate-impact newcomers should be exactly what Florida needs to return to the infield.

After finishing in the top four at three of the previous four national meets, the highly-touted Gators entered NCAA Indoors ranked No. 1. But they stumbled into a tie for 14th place. Outdoors, they tied for ninth nationally.

This group, however, returns seven of 10 individual NCAA Outdoor qualifiers, two other NCAA Indoor scorers, and welcomes two-time national champion Destinee Gause back from a redshirt season.

The Gators are set up to score points in nearly every discipline and a wide variety of events. A breakdown of UF’s returning NCAA qualifiers reveals three throwers, two sprinters, two jumpers, a distance runner, and a hurdler.

From L to R: Marija Vucenovic, Skylar Ross-Ransom, Jontavia Dykes, Taylor Tubbs, Lloydricia Cameron, Yanis David, Shayla Sanders, Darrielle McQueen, Kyra Jefferson.

The sprinters—Kyra Jefferson and Shayla Sanders—only have outdoor eligibility, though that is where the two are at their best. Gause, Jefferson, and Sanders all ran on UF’s national title-winning 4x100 relay in 2015. Middle legs from Gause and Jefferson also helped the Gators win the outdoor 4x400 national and SEC titles that year as well.

Kyra Jefferson and Destinee Gause (third and fourth from the left) helped the Gators win three relay titles in 2015, including the program's first-ever 4x100 national championship.

Additionally, half of the Gators’ 2016 SEC Outdoor title-winning 4x400 relay team returns, giving Holloway a pair of loaded relay pools.

So long as the women’s team can stay healthy, Gators should be competing and scoring points almost everywhere at both national and SEC meets.

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Here’s a closer look at each of UF’s five disciplines entering the 2017 season.

Distance

As mentioned above, Arroyo and Schnulle headline UF’s contingent of distance runners on the men’s side.

Although Arroyo failed to advance from the NCAA Outdoor East Preliminary, he enjoyed a tremendous 2016 season. Arroyo broke Mark Everett’s 26-year-old school record to take runner-up honors at SEC Indoor Championships and nabbed his third indoor All-America honor. He went on to represent Puerto Rico in the Olympics, becoming the first 800 meters semifinalist in his nation’s history.

Schnulle, a four-time 800 meters All-American and 2014 NCAA Outdoor Championships runner-up, battled illness last season before taking an outdoor redshirt. The Gators will get a huge lift when he hits the track come March.

After a relatively quiet freshman season, Jack Guyton came within 1.75 seconds of qualifying for the World Junior Championships in the 1,500 meters. He will be someone to keep an eye on this winter and spring.

The women are even stronger in the middle distance department, as two-time SEC All-Freshman honoree Elisabeth Bergh and breakout performer Amber Johnson are back.

Bergh earned top honors among freshmen and took eighth overall in a deep mile field at SEC Indoors. The Norwegian followed that with a berth at the NCAA East Preliminary in the 1,500 meters, capping a solid debut.

Johnson’s emergence at SEC Outdoors was quite the stunner. Now a rising senior, Johnson entered 2016 with a collegiate personal record of 4:40.28 in the 1,500 meters. In the conference prelims, she clocked in at 4:21.77, shocking even herself.

Rising senior Taylor Tubbs rounds out the top distance returners. The Sebring, Fla. native logged top-five finishes in the mile (fourth) and 1,500 meters (fifth) at the SEC meets, won the Penn Relays 5,000 meters title, and became UF’s first NCAA Outdoors qualifier in the 5,000 meters since two-time Olympian Genevieve LaCaze (2009).

True freshman Jessica Pascoe and 2016 Sun Belt Conference Indoor Championships mile winner Noora Wallenius, a transfer from Little Rock, performed well early in the cross country season and bolster UF’s depth.

UF’s men are expecting a freshman boost from Justin Pacifico, the 2016 FHSAA Class 4A Outdoor Finals champion in the 800 meters. Cross country standouts Carlos Miranda and Magnus Pettersen, a senior and sophomore, respectively, could impress as well.

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Hurdles

This is appears to be UF’s deepest stable of hurdlers in quite some time, with 400-meter hurdlers Eric Futch and TJ Holmes, both of whom were United State Olympic Trials semifinalists, setting the pace.

Futch swept the SEC and national titles, UF’s first such victories since three-time Olympic medalist Kerron Clement (2005), while Holmes took runner-up honors at NCAA Outdoors and third at SEC Outdoors. It marked just the second time since 1983 teammates finished 1-2 in the 400 hurdles at the national meet.

UF’s other national meet qualifiers came in the short hurdles in the form of Skylar Ross-Ransom, an All-American in the 60-meter hurdles, and Yanick Hart, who collected All-America laurels in the 60- and 110-meter hurdles.

The short hurdle corps on both sides are filled out by seniors Marques Burgman, Caleb Chambliss, Ryann McEnany, and Moriel Pitt (outdoor only). And returning NCAA East Preliminary 400 hurdles qualifiers Mikayla Barber and Maurice Dix, and 100 hurdles qualifier Kimani Rushing are all eyeing the national meet this time around.

Yanick Hart (top), Ryann McEnany (left top), Marques Burgman and Caleb Chambliss (left middle), Kimani Rushing (left bottom), Maurice Dix (right top), Mikayla Barber (right bottom).

Newcomers Grant Holloway, Brandee’ Johnson, and Timetria Mitchell all enter UF with laundry lists of prep laurels.

Holloway, the American junior record holder and two-time New Balance Nationals Indoor champion in the 60-meter hurdles, graduated from Grassfield (Va.) High School as the No. 4-ranked 60-meter hurdler on the world junior all-time list. He also boasts a pair of U.S. Outdoor Junior Championships bronze medals—one in the 110-meter hurdles and another in the long jump.

Exactly how versatile can Holloway be? He nearly broke the high school pentathlon record en route to a gold medal at New Balance Nationals Indoor last winter. Look for him to hurdle, sprint, and jump for the Gators.

Johnson qualified for the 2016 IAAF World Junior Championships in the 400 hurdles and will compete in both the short and long hurdles as a freshman. Like Holloway, she is in line to pull some double duty as a sprinter and relay runner.

Mitchell won three consecutive FHSAA Class 3A Outdoor crowns in the 100 hurdles, which will be her primary focus this year.

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Jumps

UF’s streak of six consecutive outdoor triple jump national titles, tied for the longest run in any event at either NCAA Championship by either gender, may have ended, but rising junior KeAndre Bates was the x-factor in its team victory last season.

After taking fourth in the long jump at NCAA Indoors, Bates’ outdoor campaign went like this:

  • Scored 14 points in the long jump and triple jump at NCAA Outdoors
  • Second Gator (two-time Olympic gold medalist Christian Taylor, 2010) since 1990 to score in both horizontal jumps at NCAA Outdoors as an underclassman
  • Third collegian since 1972 to log top-10 finishes in both horizontal jumps at U.S. Olympic Trials
  • Second collegian since 1996 to jump at least 8.32 meters at U.S. Olympic Trials

Last year’s outdoor horizontal jumps national champions are both gone, as is indoor long jump national champ Jarrion Lawson, leaving the door wide open for Bates.

Fellow horizontal jumpers Yanis David, Asa Garcia, and Darrielle McQueen give the women an opportunity to pile up points on the runway.

Despite being a mid-year enrollee last January, David earned three All-America accolades and cracked the top four in both of UF’s all-time indoor and outdoor top 10s in the horizontal jumps. David followed up that stellar freshman season with an IAAF World Junior Championships gold medal in the long jump.

McQueen also earned three All-America honors last year, though her top performance of the season came in a runner-up finish at SEC Indoors, where she finished behind Olympian and American record holder Keturah Orji in the triple jump. McQueen enters the season ranked third or higher in both horizontal jumps on the program’s all-time indoor top 10.

Garcia, a sophomore transfer from Texas, qualified for NCAA Outdoors in the triple jump and was the 2015 New Balance Nationals Indoor gold medalist.

No Florida man since 2003 has scored in the pole vault, but after a personal record indoors last year rising redshirt Aaron Owens could be the one to end that drought.

As if the men need more potential point-scorers in their arsenal, Holloway and fellow newcomer Clayton Brown could stack up some points in the long jump and high jump, respectively. Brown’s personal record of 7 feet, 2.5 inches would have totaled 14 points at last year’s national meets. The Jamaican’s triple jump PR of 53 feet, 0.75 inches would earn him a spot on UF’s all-time indoor and outdoor top 10s as well.

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Sprints

Florida’s reputation for championship-caliber sprinting is not going anywhere.

After joining elite company as freshmen, Ryan Clark and Kunle Fasasi are primed for star-studded sophomore seasons.

Clark became just the second UF freshman to qualify for the 100 meters at NCAA Outdoors, on top of his indoor All-America honor in the 60 meters and anchor leg for UF’s fourth-place 4x100 relay team. Fasasi took sixth in the 400 meters at NCAA Outdoors, making him the fifth quarter-miler in school history to score outdoors as a freshman. The Nigerian helped UF to runner-up finishes in the 4x400 relay at both national meets, too.

Four-time All-American Nick Uruburu should be back at full strength for the Gators, as he spent much of last year working his way back from offseason surgery.

Uruburu was called upon to run a leg for UF's 4x400 relay team at NCAA Indoors after Arman Hall went down in the 200 meters final. The Gators took second place.

The sprint corps is even deeper on the women’s side, though it will not be operating with maximum output until the Gators get Jefferson and Sanders in the mix outdoors.

Jefferson is a three-time national champion and came out of nowhere to win the SEC title in the 100 meters in 2016. The Detroit native joined some illustrious company of her own last season as well.

Sanders, an eight-time All-American, tied UF’s 24-year-old 100 meters record (11.13) and move up to No. 2 all-time in the outdoor 200 meters (22.77) in last year’s season-opening meet.

Gause’s return and Ross-Ransom’s experience as the third runner last year gives UF a top-level 4x100 relay. Taylor Sharpe and rising sophomore Sharrika Barnett, who barely missed a spot for NCAA Outdoors, solidifies a 4x400 pool full of SEC and national champions. The addition of Brandee’ Johnson will be significant for both relay pools.

Taylor Sharpe and Sharrika Barnett (third and fourth from the left) helped UF repeat as SEC Outdoor champions in the 4x4.

Holloway and rising sophomore Michael Timpson Jr., along with Futch, and potential breakout performer Jabari Hill gives Florida’s men plenty of choices for both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.

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Throws

Megan Reed transitioned from softball player to javelin thrower far quicker than anyone expected.

Florida’s women were the most diverse group of throwers last year, becoming only the second Division I team since 2007 to have at least one NCAA Outdoors qualifier in each of the four throws.

The group as a whole made massive strides forward, with Jontavia Dykes and Megan Reed (pictured above) going from total unknowns to surprise contributors.

Dykes shattered her discus throw PR by 6.62 meters to earn a spot at the national meet. Reed joined the program after a one-year stint with UF’s softball team and qualified for the NCAA East Preliminary, despite having zero experience throwing the javelin.

Rising junior Lloydricia Cameron and fifth-year senior Marija Vucenovic are the two returning NCAA scorers from the group. Cameron took seventh in the shot put to earn her first outdoor All-America laurel, while Vucenovic logged her second top-five finish of her career in the javelin.

Hammer thrower Anders Eriksson (right side of picture above) is the top returner on the men’s side. In addition to winning the SEC title, the Swede became the seventh freshman since 1983 to score and throw 70-plus meters at NCAA Outdoors, nabbing four points at the meet.

His partner in crime, AJ McFarland (left side of picture above), burst onto the top five on UF’s all-time top 10 lists in the weight throw and hammer throw as a redshirt freshman in 2016.

Newcomers Connor Bandel and Amara Wiggan both bring intrigue for much different reasons.

Bandel won gold at the U.S. Outdoor Junior Championships in the discus, qualifying him for the IAAF World Junior Championships. He also took sixth at U.S. Outdoor Juniors and broke Michigan's state shot put record.

On the other hand, Wiggan, like Reed last year, comes to the Gators from outside the sport. The Orlando, Fla. native was one of the best junior Olympic weightlifters in the country coming out of high school, boasting a silver medal at the 2016 National Junior Weightlifting Championships.

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Photos by: Nate Barrett, Jordan Beckett, Tim Casey (UAA Communications), Rob Foldy (for UAA Communications), Ryan Kang (The Associated Press), James Lang (USA Today Sports), Andres Levia (UAA Communications), Stephen Nowland (NCAA Photos)

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