Boasting some of the top young talent in the Mountain West Conference, in addition to an outstanding core of veterans, the New Mexico women should be one of the league's top up-and-coming teams in 2006. The balanced UNM squad returns all-MWC athletes in the sprints/relays, distance events, pole vault and throws, as well as four NCAA regional qualifiers. Sixth-year head coach Matt Henry, who was named MWC Women's Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2005, sat down before the season to share his thoughts on the Lobo women.
It looks like you have one of the Mountain West's most promising sprint groups this year - sophomores Ariel Burr and Kristan Matison were both all-conference runners last spring, and senior Kimilia Davis is also back this year.
"I think we do. We have almost everybody back, including Kimilia, who has always been the backbone of our sprint group. Behind the scenes, she's the motivator and the leader. Coming out of high school we weren't sure what she would be able to do, but she has worked very, very hard and she can really run. Of course Ariel ran very fast and Kristan Matison really had a great outdoor season last year. They're both a little banged up right now, but when we get them healthy, I think they're going to do something special for us. The one who really looked good this past fall was (sophomore) Shakira Williams. She was young and maybe a little bit lost last year, but we're looking for some nice things from her this season. We also have (sophomore) Tabatha (Shaw) back with us and she's gotten stronger too. Then if you include some our new girls like Katie Candelaria and Christina Zarrella - I'm really anxious to see what we can do."
Led by seniors Jacquelyne Gallegos and Timmie Murphy, your distance group established themselves as one of the best in school history during this past cross country season, finishing second in the MWC and making a strong push for an NCAA berth - what do you expect to see out of them on the track?
"Jackie's our most experienced runner, and she's still hurting a little from the cross country season, but we know she can really run fast. Jackie is able to run anything we need her to from 1,500 to a 10K. She's got that attitude that no matter what race she's in, she's going to be competitive. Timmie is just going to run indoors and redshirt outdoors, but we're really going to try to do something special with her indoors. She had a great cross country season and we just hope we can keep that momentum going on the track. We're thankful that we were able to redshirt (freshman) Leslie Luna last year. She's really young, but as we saw this past fall, she's got some real potential and could turn some heads this spring. She's willing to work hard and loves what she's doing. We also think (junior) Riann Lucy is ready to do some great things in the 800 this year. Riann had a rough cross country season, but my goal is to get her to regionals this spring. She works extremely hard, is very talented and hates to lose."
It looks like you're going to have a real presence in the jumps this year with sophomore Tiyana Peters and freshman Khristina Curtis high jumping, and the addition of freshman Hagit Salamon in the long and triple.
"Well, we think so. Tiyana was hurt much of the year, but did really well at the end of the outdoor season. She's had a pretty good fall and is going to keep getting better. Khristina Curtis is very, very talented and we're looking forward to seeing how she does in her first year. Hagit is a hard worker, she was an accomplished jumper in Israel and she's done some nice things in practice. We're anxious to see what she can do starting with the indoor season."
How much have all of your jumpers benefited from having Keren Bentzur now as the full time assistant coach?
"It's helped us a lot. She's brought a different attitude to the team. As a competitor, Keren was very aggressive and was never afraid to say or do whatever was necessary to help make our program better. I'm really proud that we have a University of New Mexico graduate that knows our program and is committed to helping us succeed. She's very knowledgeable about track and field and I think we've got an outstanding heptathlon and jumps coach here."
Whitney Johnson really had a great rookie season last year, earning all-conference honors and qualifying for regionals in the pole vault - what are your goals for her this season?
"She took some big steps last year. I don't know if she can make as big a jump in her second season, but she's another one of those who really enjoys what she's doing and has been a great addition to our team. Whitney has been working hard to be one of the best in our conference and we're hoping she can also do some things at the regional meet this year."
One of the best stories on your team is senior Jamie Fishencord who has really come from nowhere to be one of the best hammer throwers in country - how did she make such dramatic improvement?
"I don't know, maybe it was because of us. That first year, we didn't think she had the ability to help us. I think she probably took that as a challenge and said `You know what, these guys don't think I'm any good, but I'm going to show them what I can do.' She's worked very hard and we're sure glad we have her back for another year. She's definitely one of our top candidates to get to nationals this spring."
Like the women's team, the New Mexico men also feature a balanced blend of veterans and promising young prospects that the coaching staff believes will make the 2006 season a successful one. The Lobos return a pair of MWC champions and national qualifiers in seniors Dan Feltman (decathlon) and Matt Keeran (javelin), though Feltman will redshirt the outdoor season. UNM boasts one of the top pole vault units in the region, has excellent depth and talent in the sprints and distance events, and some future standouts in the field events. Coach Henry talked about the men of New Mexico prior to the season.
You lost a solid MWC finalist in Ahmed Raji, but this group of sprinters looks like they could really make some noise in the conference this year, including sophomore Jarrin Solomon who was the runner-up in the 400 and a regional qualifier last season.
"Like the women, we have just about all our sprinters back this year. Jarrin was a really a soccer guy in high school and did track on the side, so we weren't sure what he could do for us right away. He came in though, worked hard, studied his competitors and took some huge steps last year. We hope he takes a few more this year and keeps getting better. He's got a great future ahead of him as does (junior) Jeramie White, who I think is one of our most talented guys. I think he's grown up more and more each year and he's very versatile. He can run a 100 up through a 400 and be very competitive. We're also hoping our two football guys, (senior) Aaron Brack and (sophomore) Marcus Smith, can help us even more this year. Aaron should be with us all year and Marcus will join us at the end of the outdoor season, but with those guys, we think we've got a great shot to win that short relay at the conference meet. We were winning it last year before we ran out of the zone on the final exchange, but we've got them all back and if we can get the stick around I think we can run pretty fast."
Fifth-year senior Cameron Clarke is back for his final outdoor season after earning all-MWC honors indoors in the 800 last year and you also have junior Jeremy Johnson back in cherry and silver after a year at Arizona - what impact will these two play in the distance events?
"I've always said that Cameron is probably the most talented guy we have. He did a good job in the 800 last year and I feel comfortable putting him in there again as well as the 1,500, but I really think Cameron could be at his best in the 5,000 meters. Hopefully he'll come out this spring and make his final season a big one. I think Jeremy is going to make a real impact this year. He's our main guy right now in the 3,000 and 5,000. Of course he's been down a winding road in his career, starting with us, then going to Arizona - where he got hurt - before coming back. He's been training with us full time since the fall and has really shown a lot of promise."
You have a lot of weapons in the pole vault with a pair of veterans in senior Derek Mackel and junior Robert Caldwell that are both among the best in MWC and the country, along with sophomore Zach Graham, who has shown a lot of potential - what do you think these guys are capable of this year?
"Derek and Robert have already shown that they're going to jump really high this year. If they're healthy, I'd be surprised if they can't make it to the NCAAs. Derek has a sore knee that acts up on him from time to time, especially outdoors. The indoor surface has a little more bounce and is a little easier on him. Right now he's really healthy though and I think he's going to benefit a lot from getting to compete at home so much this winter. Zach is a young guy, but showed some solid improvement during the fall. I'd say we're definitely blessed with some pretty nice vaulters."
There's a lot of young talent in the jumps this year, do you think they'll be ready to make an impact at the conference meet?
"(Sophomore) Domnick Meadows really had a great fall and I already know he's going to jump further than he ever has. He's really had some great direction and coaching, and you'll see some nice things out of Domnick this year. We've also got three new high jumpers (freshmen Roy Collins, Josh Cosio, Stuart St. Louis) who I think are all going to be a big surprise to people. I think we can do very well with those guys and I'm really looking forward to seeing what they can do."
"We've really got two big time competitors in the javelin. We'll miss Dan Feltman's arm this spring, but I know both of those guys will definitely go to the regionals and will score big points for us at the conference meet. Between coming off elbow surgery and hurting his hamstring right before nationals, Keeran never was right last year. He's completely healthy now though - in fact I think his elbow is a little stronger than it was before his surgery - and that guy is going throw a long way this year. We're really fortunate to have Fairbanks with us also. He's going to help us a lot this year and as he gets bigger and stronger, I think he could be one the best in the country down the road."
Dan Feltman is at his best outdoors in the decathlon where he can utilize his best event, the javelin, but what are your goals for him in his final indoor season and what led to your decision to redshirt him in the spring?
"We're really hoping he can be a national qualifier in the heptathlon indoors. We've always had trouble with injuries, but if Feltman can stay healthy, he is something special. Right now, he's ready to go and I think he has a great indoor season in him. Last year, we weren't completely sure that we were going to redshirt him outdoors, but I think in the long run it's really going to help him a great deal. This is going to give him another year of aging, which is so valuable, especially in that event. When he comes back next spring, I think the people at nationals are going to have to look out for Dan Feltman."