The Massachusetts men’s track and field team will be opening its indoor season Saturday at the Yale Invitational, but coming off a break from formal team training, questions linger as to how the team will kick off the season.
Coach Ken O’Brien said the coaching staff is unsure how the team will start the season after going about six weeks without training with the team due to final exams and winter break.
“As coaches, and probably the student athletes themselves, there’s always some uncertainty as to how the team is going to look after approximately six weeks without any formal training,” O’Brien said.
However, O’Brien said that this year’s team is deep enough to recover for any players who might be rusty coming off the break.
“We’ve got pretty good depth,” he said. “Some of the competitors are older veterans, juniors and seniors, and even some of the younger ones will back them up. So, with numbers in each event, we can afford a few mistakes for a while, but we’re hoping to get everybody on the same page soon.”
O’Brien said the team will rely on some of its big performers from last year to do well again this year.
“Usually, the veterans who were on your team last year who stood out in the tournaments are the ones that you have a tendency to want to count on right away,” O’Brien said.
One competitor who did well last year was senior Paul Grafov. As a junior, Grafov qualified for the IC4A Championships in both the 500 meter run and the 4×400 meter relay. Grafov tied for the fourth fastest time in UMass history in the 500 meter and, along with teammates Aaron Araujo, Evan Donadt and Zach Hildenbrandt, set the fifth best time in team history in the relay event.
While O’Brien said it is rare in track and field for freshmen to come in and immediately take a big spot on the team, but he feels very confident about this year’s recruitment class, and the team has ways of working freshmen into the roster.
“A lot of times where we find ourselves valuing some of the incoming freshmen is in how they can help our relay teams score points,” O’Brien said. “Freshmen in track and field, they have a lot of talent that they bring with them from high school and they may just suffer a little bit from lack of experience in terms of competing against guys on other teams that are older than them.
“But, at the same time, if you have two or three good ones, you combine them in a relay, they can be very valuable and it’s a good way for young runners to gain valuable experience quickly and experience success at the same time.”
This strategy worked out well last year for Michael Giardina, Curtis Owen, and John Mantia. As freshmen, Giardina and Owen teamed up with then-sophomores Thomas Mullen and Jared Reddy for the 4×800 meter relay and qualified for the IC4A Championships.
Mantia teamed up with Joe Doyle, Patrick McGowan, and Michael McDonough to qualify for the IC4A in the distance medley relay event. Both squads ran team season best times in their respective events at the IC4A.
However, despite O’Brien’s confidence in his current athletes, he said the team has lost several of its strongest athletes, which could present a challenge for those that are still here.
“We lost a lot of kids who were our top people in each event, who ranked at a high level in the conference, and anytime you lose someone who’s really good and can score at a high level, they also come to the table with a level of confidence and leadership,” said O’Brien. “What we need this year is for some people on our current team to be able to step up and project that leadership capability and that confidence, the counted-on veteran who a team goes to an event knowing those guys are good for ten points per event.”
O’Brien said the coaching staff will have a better sense of the team’s current state after they compete in New Haven on Saturday.
“I’d be ecstatic if we had something close to where we left school, but we’ve got to kind of see what we see on this weekend, we’ve got to kind of evaluate and say, ‘OK, this is where we are now,’” said O’Brien. “I think we’ll be a step back from where we were, and we’ve just got to figure out how far back are we and that will allow the coaches and athletes to come up with a gameplan to regain that original [level] and then exceed it in the next seven or eight weeks of the season.”
O’Brien said there will be some tough competition at the event, including schools such as Connecticut, Northeastern University, and of course, Yale itself, but expects the team to finish around fourth or fifth out of the 12 competing teams.
The event is set to start at noon.
Jesse Mayfield-Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com.