Hawkeyes host conference championships

BY BEN SCHUFF | MAY 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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Fourteen white tents sit outside the Cretzmeyer Track at one end of the grandstand. Near the entrance of the track stands a large and luxurious mobile press box similar to the skyboxes at Kinnick Stadium.

The Big Ten championships have arrived.

"It looks great, doesn't it," Iowa head coach Larry Wieczorek said with a smile on his face Wednesday.

The Iowa track and field program will host the Big Ten outdoor track and field championships beginning today and running through May 15. The men's pole vault will start the weekend's action at 11 a.m.

The Hawkeyes were supposed to host the event in 2009, but major flooding during the summer of 2008 moved the championships to Ohio State. The last time Iowa hosted the outdoor conference championships was 2000, and the team finished sixth.

Wieczorek said the extra two-year wait to host Big Tens may be a benefit for his squad; the team has improved since then.

"It's a better opportunity for us to be at home," Wieczorek said, noting his team's seventh-place finish in 2009. "If you're not very good, you'd like to be on the road at the Big Ten championships. I think this is the first time in many years that we can legitimately say we're going in to win this title."

The Hawkeyes finished fourth at last year's outdoor championships, the team's best finish since earning second place in 1999.

With several key athletes back again this year, Iowa's expectation are high. The Black and Gold returns two conference champions from a year ago in Steven Willey (400 meters) and Matt Byers (javelin). Iowa's Ray Varner, a senior last year, won the 400 hurdles as well.

Willey enters the meet with a season-best time of 46.48 seconds, ranking him third in the Big Ten and 35th nationally.

The 400 meters could very well come down to Willey or Ohio State's Thomas Murdaugh. The Buckeye junior holds the conference's top outdoor time this year at 45.81 seconds, a career best.

Murdaugh won the event at the indoor championships in February and placed second at last year's outdoor Big Tens.

"It's going to be me or Murdaugh, one, two," Willey said. "He's such a great competitor. It's been fun running against him the last three years, and I think it'll be another great race this weekend."

Willey is also scheduled to run in the 200 meters and the 4x400-meter relay.

Byers should have a great opportunity to repeat as Big Ten champion in front of the home fans. The Wichita, Kan., native won last year's contest with a throw of 220 feet, 6 inches.

This year, his farthest throw measured 245 feet, 8 inches — more than 23 feet farther than that of Wisconsin's Rob Dehn, who sits in second in the conference. Despite appearing to have a firm grasp on the competition, Byers knows he has to do more than simply show up to the track this weekend.

"[Throws] coach [Scott] Cappos has been preaching to me all week to be humble and not overconfident," Byers said.

There are a number of other events in which the Hawkeyes' depth could prove to be crucial to their success. High jumpers Jeff Herron, Brandon Oest, and Graham Valdes are tied with four other Big Ten athletes for fifth in the event. The top-eight finishers score points.

Ethan Holmes said the team is hoping to score 20 points in the 400 hurdles. Holmes enters the weekend ranked second in the conference, with fellow Hawkeyes D'Juan Richardson and Keaton Rickels ranked third and 10th.

Iowa's relays are also some of best in the Big Ten, and the 4x100 and the 4x400 groups have both posted the conference's third-best times this year.

With several individuals posting personal-best marks over the past few weeks, Iowa athletes said they've anxiously awaiting the Big Tens.

"I think the outdoor [conference] championships is the most important event of the year for us," Wieczorek said. "One of my sayings is, 'You want to be happy in May.' You want to be happy at the Big Ten championships. That's what we've worked for from September on."

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