Eugene, Oregon, is known as TrackTown, USA. Baylor coach Todd Harbour called it an “unbelievable” place to hold a track meet, and compared the crowds there to the passionate throngs one might see at European meets.
But no offense to Eugene, Harbour and his athletes are happy for a change. Especially since that change is happening just 90 minutes from their backyard.
For the first time since 2012, the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships will be held in a location other than Eugene. This week’s NCAA meet, which starts Wednesday and runs through Saturday, is slated for Mike A. Myers Stadium on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin.
It’s the eighth time in 98 years that the state of Texas has hosted the national championships, and the seventh time it’s been in Austin. (Houston hosted it once, in 1983.) But it’s the first time Austin has hosted since 2004.
To have the meet so close to home is a big deal, Harbour said.
“Being just 90 miles down the road in Austin, at a place that a lot of our athletes have called home, have run state championships there, they’ve got a lot of great memories there. So, it’s a nice trade-off,” Harbour said.
Chris Platt certainly has happy memories of his days competing at Myers Stadium. The Baylor senior, who doubles as a receiver for the BU football team, won three straight 400-meter titles in high school on that track for his hometown of Willis.
“It’s very special,” Platt said. “Just being able to be here a few hours away from home, and not traveling to Oregon and the time change, it’s very special.”
Baylor has a chance to do some damage in Austin, too. The Bears qualified seven different entrants to nationals – senior Wil London and sophomore Howard “Trey” Fields in the men’s 400, freshman KC Lightfoot in the men’s pole vault, sophomore Jalen Seals in the men’s pole vault, junior Aaliyah Miller in the women’s 800, and both the BU men’s and women’s 4x400 relay teams.
London has finished eighth in each of the past two NCAA outdoor meets, and goes into this meet with the fifth-fastest time in the country at 44.93. For his final college meet, the senior from Waco won’t be satisfied with anything but gold.
“I’m way better than I was last year, and more confident,” he said. “I’ve been on the right path this whole season, running fast at the right time, so I know this being the last one this will be the fast one that I’m ready for.”
On the women’s side, Miller appears to be hitting her stride at the right time. The 2018 Big 12 champion in the 800 hadn’t really put it together this year for much of the season. She was running in the 2:06-2:07 range, and admitted that she was somewhat stressed over her classwork.
But after she finished final exams, Miller felt free as a bird, and it showed at the NCAA West Prelims in Sacramento, Calif. Miller busted off a season-best time of 2:03.68 to earn her spot at nationals, and perhaps set up a frenetic finishing kick.
“I would say both of my seasons (indoor and outdoor) were kind of frustrating,” Miller said. “It kind of felt like I was running the same times, kind of plateauing. But, after conference, I kind of felt like something was there. And then for it to all come together at Sacramento was really the perfect kind of meet. So, I’m really excited heading into nationals.”
This meet will also mark the swan song for a legend. Clyde Hart is hanging up his whistle after 56 years of coaching, and the Baylor athletes want to send him off right.
That means one more charge in the 4x400. Platt gave the team a boost at the NCAA West Prelims, replacing Caleb Dickson on the team and contributing a 45.9-second third leg.
Harbour thinks the Baylor men could compete for a national title, along with some of the usual suspects.
“It’s a good relay right now,” Harbour said. “Those guys are going to contend for a national championship. They’re not going down there with any other expectation than winning it. It will be A&M and Florida and Houston. But what a great way to send Coach Hart out. You’ve got a couple seniors on there, and it would be a great ending for those guys.”
The future of Baylor track and field is also in firm and capable hands, thanks to the ascent of athletes like Lightfoot. The freshman from Lee’s Summit, Mo., finished eighth nationally during the indoor season to give Baylor its first All-American in that event since 2002. He cleared 18-8 3/4 at the Michael Johnson Invitational in April, which ranks as the fourth-best height in the country coming into the meet.
“My thoughts are this is a great freshman year so far,” said Lightfoot, who said his personal goals are to set a new PR at the meet and earn All-America honors. “Everything has been falling into a pretty good place. To set it up, hopefully it just keeps momentum and hopefully I can keep going to national championships my other years.”