Tue, May. 22, 2012 - [Track & Field]
By RANDY PAYTON
Rio Grande Sports Information
RIO GRANDE, Ohio - A half-dozen athletes representing the University of Rio Grande are among those who will participate in the 2012 NAIA Men's & Women's Outdoor Track & Field National Championships beginning Thursday at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind. Senior Cassie Mattia (West Chester, OH) leads the RedStorm's hopefuls, running in the women's 800-meter run and as part of the school's 4x800 relay team. The relay team also includes seniors Kayla Graves (Chillicothe, OH) and Kayla Renner (Galloway, OH), as well as freshman Samantha Barnes (Gallipolis, OH).
Junior Amy Lower (Lancaster, OH), who began the season as a member of the relay team before being sidelined by injury, is also making the trip as an alternate.
Senior Matt Spencer (Pickerington, OH) is the only member of the Rio men's team who qualified for the national event. He'll compete in the 800-meter run.
"It's the highlight of the season. Ultimately, it's what you work toward," said Rio Grande head coach Bob Willey. "The thought of being able to make it to the national championships is one thing, but making it to the podium is where the mindset has to be now. Unfortunately, we're banged up a little bit and we're dealing with some sickness - not what you want going into the national meet - but, hopefully, we'll get everybody healthy and ready to go. You have to be on top of your game at this point."
The 4x800 relay squad has been re-writing the school record book since the outset of the season. Their latest revision came at the Mid-South Conference championship meet earlier this month when the quartet finished in a time of 9:20.75 - eclipsing the previous school mark they'd set in March at Coastal Carolina University's Shamrock Invitational by nearly eight full seconds.
Perhaps more impressive was the fact that the new time was almost 28 seconds faster than the previous MSC meet record.
"At the conference meet, the announcer started to say they'd broken the previous record, but he stopped and corrected himself to say that they shattered the previous record," Willey said. "That's the fastest they've run all year, but they can run faster - and they'll have to in order to make the podium. It's always difficult when you're trying to get four people to run their personal -best on the same day but, believe it or not, that's what happened at the conference meet. Now the trick is doing it again - only a little faster."
Rio Grande's qualifying time is the eighth-fastest among the squads in the hunt for a national title.
Willey is also holding out hope that Mattia and Spencer will close out the respective careers with a bang in their individual events.
"They both have worked very hard and they've got a chance to move on out of the prelims and into the semifinals," he said. "We'll just have to see."
Mattia also set a new MSC meet record in the 800 with her finish of 2:16.37, bettering the old mark of 2:17.20 that she had established one year earlier.
However, her qualifying time for the national meet is a school-best 2:14.71, which she ran on April 21 at the Eastern Kentucky Open. That time bettered her previous school record of 2:14.94 which, earlier this year, erased the previous school record of 2:15.20 set by Rio Grande Hall of Famer Perri Martin 32 years ago.
Mattia's qualifying time is the ninth-fastest in the field.
"Cassie has one of the top times in her event, but she's also got five races staring her in the face with the prelims of the open 800 and 4x800 on Thursday, the semifinals in the open and, hopefully, the finals of the 4x800 on Friday and, hopefully again, the finals of the open on Saturday," said Willey. "That's an awful lot of racing over the course of three days and we talked about it, but she wants to give it a shot. If she's lucky, maybe she won't have a prelim on Thursday and can go straight to the semifinals. That would save her at least one race, which would be good."
As for Spencer, he qualified for the nationals with a personal-best showing of 1:54.40 also as part of the Shamrock Invitational in March.
His road to the podium appears much more steep, though. His qualifying time ranks 26th in the field.
"Matt is running as fast as he has in his life, which is exactly what you want at this point," Willey said. "Everybody can go faster at this point and he's no different. He's had some great workouts and, hopefully, he'll be able to advance as well. We're excited to see what all of our kids can do."