The Loyola track and field team is scheduled to compete in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Indoor Championships Feb. 24-25. The meet will take place in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and is one of the nation’s prime stages for track and field as the MVC is often considered the best conference in the country outside the Power-5, according to Loyola head coach Bob Thurnhoffer.
After a number of solid individual performances in the indoor and outdoor championships last year in which the Ramblers took home three event titles and recorded two other podium finishes, the story for the program heading into the indoor conference championships this year appears to be similar.
“Thinking back to last year, we had some NCAA Championship qualifiers and we had some Missouri Valley Conference champions and those athletes have certainly continued on that path,” Thurnhoffer said.
One of the athletes to watch is sophomore long jumper Eric Burns, a qualifier in the NCAA Championship last season who Thurnhoffer described as “the seventh or eighth best freshman long jumper in the country.” Burns currently sits in second place in the conference in the event. While Burns hasn’t recorded a jump higher than 7.29m this indoor season, the mark which won him fourth place at the MVC Indoor Championship last year, Thurnhoffer said he’s not worried.
“He’s had a little bit of technical trouble, so he hasn’t hit a big jump yet. But as far as conditioning goes … he’s certainly on pace to jump past what he did last year by a pretty significant amount,” Thurnhoffer said.
This weekend, two elite distance runners returning to the MVC Indoor Championship are redshirt junior Lindsey Brewis and senior Emma Hatch. Brewis already has a cross country conference championship under her belt in the 5K, but is now taking her work in track and field to a championship level with a breakout season. She broke the school record in the 3000-meter held by former All-American Gina Valgoi at the Meyo Invitational Feb. 3 and will compete in the 3000m and 5000m this weekend.
“[Brewis] is just having a magical season … she looks like she could win not only one title, but maybe more than one title, which would be unbelievable,” Thurnhoffer said.
Combine Brewis with Hatch, who placed first in the 10,000m run at the MVC Outdoor Championships last season, and Loyola’s female distance crew is a force to be reckoned with.
“You don’t really get a 1-2 punch like that too often,” Thurnhoffer said.
Senior long jumper Kiera Washpun is another returning Rambler expected to make noise this weekend. Washpun will look to defend her conference title in the long jump she claimed at the Outdoor Championships.
While there are a lot of returning stars in Loyola track and field this season, the difference between this year and last as they head into the indoor conference championship is they have help. Thurnhoffer said many Ramblers who weren’t developed enough to place last season are now ready to contend.
“Last year it was about our studs,” Thurnhoffer said. “This year it is much more comprehensive. From a team standpoint, I think we’re ready to do quite a bit better than last year.”
After failing to make the finals in the 60m run and 200m run last year in Cedar Falls, junior sprinter Natajah Simmons is ready to make a splash in the finals in both events this year. The Oswego native is in the midst of a breakout season, setting personal bests in the 60m run and 200m run in the first meet of the season Dec. 1, with times of 7.66 and 24.75 seconds, respectively. She has remained consistent, keeping her times close to those marks during the rest of the season.
“The marks that I’ve been hitting this year are significantly better than the ones I hit last year,” Simmons said.
The women’s 4×400-meter relay team, consisting of Simmons, sophomores Kyndall Wallace and Lindsay Walters and senior Brady Rodney, is looking to improve off an eighth-place finish at last year’s indoor championships.
Other notables to watch are sophomore long jumper Michael Papper, senior thrower Stephen Hubona and the men’s 4x400m team of junior duo Leron Norton and Elijah Hodge and sophomores Michael Edwards and Octavian Wells. This relay team ran the fastest time set by Loyola in the event in four years at 3:12.84, which put them in third place in a tight conference race.
“That’s a really good relay that can absolutely contend for a title and almost assuredly will get on the podium in a top-3 finish,” Thurnhoffer said.
Loyola’s strong depth will be huge this upcoming weekend as teams sharpen their focus to team standings at the conference meet. Loyola is trying to win its first MVC team title in school history and every point won matters for the team competition, which Burns said brings a different atmosphere to the event.
“Track is the most individual team sport there is, and this is the time where you really get brought back into the team aspect of it and you really need to focus on ‘I’m doing what I am for the team,’” Burns said. “It takes a little bit of pressure off you, but also puts a different type of pressure on you.”