Track and field teams head to A-10 Championships

By Stephen Sellner

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Courtesy UMass Athletics

It all comes down to this.

The Massachusetts men’s and women’s track and field teams are looking to build off of their regular season accomplishments as both prepare for this weekend’s Atlantic 10 Championships in North Kingston, R.I.

“Every team would like to have momentum on their side going into a big event,” UMass men’s coach Ken O’Brien said. “It has to be a plus.”

The men are coming off of their most impressive outing of the season at Saturday’s Valentine Invitational in Boston. The Minutemen placed a combined 17 qualifiers for the New England and IC4A Championships in the non-scoring affair.

The women’s team has received phenomenal performances across the board throughout the 2011 season. UMass women’s coach Julie LaFreniere expects her team to put forth its best effort heading into the crucial meet.

“We expect all our athletes…to compete with confidence and to keep their composure during competition,” LaFreniere said.

Tyler Cotto has been the model of consistency for the Minutemen throughout the season. The Holliston, Mass. native has finished in the top two in his last three races in the 55 and 60-meter hurdles and will look to lead the way along with his fellow seniors in the A-10 Championships.

“Tyler, as well as several other captains, has done a great job for their team, not only in their events but in the locker room,” O’Brien said. “We do not want any of them to change a thing.”

Kevin Spieler anchors the Maroon and White shot put unit and weight throw units. The senior was one of the many competitors who shined last weekend, as the Attleboro, Mass. native qualified for the IC4As after throwing the third farthest toss in school history in the weight throw.

The women’s side will be relying heavily on another breakout performance in the shot put.

Nalis Mbianda has made her presence felt of late in the event, finishing second, third and first in her last three meets, respectively. The sophomore is only scratching the surface of her potential for the future; however another superb outing out of Mbianda will be an important factor for the Minutewomen.

Rachelle Bourque will compete alongside Mbianda, as the two make a dynamic duo in the shot put. Throwers coach Darcy Wilson has been an integral part of the two sophomores’ development, helping the pair emerge towards the top of the competition.

Sean Busch will lead the Minutemen in the pole vault over the weekend, hoping to continue his recent streak of strong performances. The senior finished third in Saturday’s Valentine Invitational, one week removed from being named the UMass Athlete of the Week after finishing atop the leader boards at the Giegengack Invitational.

Zachary Koncki represents a dual-threat for the Minutemen, competing in both the long jump and the 60-meter hurdles. The junior was phenomenal last weekend in the long jump, emerging on top with a personal best mark of 23-0.75, while also finishing ninth in the 60-meter hurdles.

Providing senior leadership for the Minutewomen is Gina Perno. The mid-distance runner finished 10th in the 800 meters on Friday with a time of 2:12.62.

LaFreniere expects her seniors to excel this weekend, running high on the excitement of conference championships.

“The seniors have remained [focused] and excited for this weekend of challenging [competition],” she said. “They are proud to represent UMass.”

The 500-meters will showcase a trio of breakout performers on the women’s side. Michelle Jenssen, Deanna Julian and Erika Unger each placed in the top 10 on Friday and will hope to recreate similar success this weekend.

Last year’s A-10 championships saw the men’s team finish seventh of 12 teams, as Charlotte and Dayton tied for first place. The women’s team fared better in the standings with a third place showing, finishing behind eventual A-10 champions Temple.

“I will expect they will give everything they have, like they have done the whole season,” said O’Brien about his hopes for the men’s team. “We’ll gladly take whatever comes our way if we do that.”

“We expect them to believe in themselves and perform to their abilities,” LaFreniere added, commenting that she does not believe the additional pressure will faze her team. “They are prepared to step it up a few notches from the regular season competitions.”

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected]