Jan. 29, 2004
In just three short years, head coach Matt Henry and his staff have transformed the University of New Mexico men's track program from conference cellar dweller to one of the NCAA's top 40 scoring teams. Last year, New Mexico made a triumphant return to the national stage it had starred upon for the better part of three decades when sophomore Matt Gonzales placed third in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Championships to become the first UNM men's All-American since 1988. According to Henry, Gonzales' meteoric rise is just the first example of what the future could hold for this promising program.
"People are constantly calling me now because there is a guy here who is one of the best in the country," said Henry. "Even though we don't have a big name, there's something going right here at New Mexico."
SPRINTS, HURDLES, RELAYS -
Despite the losing star senior David Lloyd (Kingston, Jamaica) and five-year veteran Nick Lott this outdoor season, the Lobos return a strong, balanced group of sprinters this spring. A pair of experienced runners in seniors Ahmed Raji (Oyo, Nigeria) and Chris Garofola (Fort Washington, Pa.) both return to lead the squad after turning in their best seasons in 2003. Raji came into his own late in the year, establishing himself as one of the top sprinters in the Mountain West. He clocked an NCAA regional qualifying time of 20.95 to finish a close second in the 200 at the MWC Championship meet and was also one of the team's top 100 and 400-meter men. Garofola, meanwhile, was once again one of the top 100-meter runners in the league, as well as the Lobos' best indoor sprinter. With another full year of training under his belt, Henry said he believes Garofola could be one of the MWC's top sprinters at any distance between 100 and 400 meters.
"I think Chris is getting stronger all the time and he's just improved so much since his first year," said Henry. "His problem in the past was that he never had much of a conditioning base beneath him, but I think he's getting that more and more. Now he's very conscious about working out all the time and he's very devoted. It's like church for him."
Up-and-coming sophomore RaShawn Jackson (Hobbs, N.M.) burst onto the scene late last year, surging to a surprising sixth place finish in the 400 at the MWC Championship meet. Jackson also showed his short distance speed in the final two meets of the season, helping the 4x100-meter relay team qualify for regionals, then clock its fastest time of the year at the Midwest Championship meet.
"In our preliminary time trials we ran throughout the fall, he really has shown that he could be our best sprinter," said Henry. "He can do a lot of things for us this spring."
Henry said that he will look to rookies Jeremy Davis (Houston, Texas) and Randle McCain (Silver City, N.M.) to help offset the loss of Lloyd and Lott. A two-sport athlete in both basketball and track, Davis was essentially a relay specialist during his career at Booker T. Washington High School, but has all the tools to become a standout sprinter at the collegiate level. McCain, meanwhile, was one of the top 400-meter threats in the state of New Mexico last year, as well as an all-state soccer player, and will have a chance to contribute immediately this spring.
The loss of Lloyd will be significant in the 400-meter hurdles, where he earned all-MWC status the past two years. With a back injury limiting former standout Matt Bishop (Albuquerque, N.M.) to a middle distance role, Garofola will look to give the Lobos' a presence in the long hurdles, in addition to his duties in the sprints and 110-meter hurdles. According to Henry, the multidimensional Garofola is one of the premier high hurdlers in the conference when his technique is sharp. Sophomore Jon-Paul Barabe (Albuquerque, N.M.) will also look to contribute in both hurdle events this spring with another year of training under his belt.
New Mexico fielded its best 4x100 and 4x400-meter relay teams in over a decade last season as both squads earned all-MWC honors and qualified for the NCAA Midwest Regional Championship meet. Fortunately for the Lobos, half of the mile relay team and three-fourths of the 4x100 team return in 2004. The loss of Lloyd during the outdoor season leaves a significant void on both relays, but Henry has an excellent foundation in both events with the trio of Raji, Garofola and Jackson. A healthy Bishop is a likely choice to replace Lloyd in the mile relay, while Davis will get his opportunity in the 4x100.
The cornerstone of Matt Henry's rebuilding efforts has been a homegrown distance crew, which has quickly established itself as one of the best in the country. With his impressive third place finish in the 10,000 at the NCAA Championships, All-American Matt Gonzales (Santa Fe, N.M.) served notice to the rest of the nation of the burgeoning distance power at New Mexico. Still just a junior, the 5-5 Gonzales has become the national flag bearer for the Lobo track and field program. Despite all the accolades, redshirting the 2003 cross country season and working through incredible personal adversity during the offseason, Henry said Gonzales is in peak condition entering the track season.
This spring, Gonzales should have the choice of competing in any of three events at the 2004 NCAA Championships. Last year, Gonzales was one of the top regional qualifiers in the 5,000, where he also earned all-conference honors. He made a surprise choice, however, to run the 1,500 at the Midwest Region Championships and went on to blow away the field in stunning fashion. After clocking the top preliminary time, Gonzales claimed the Midwest title in the event with a scorching time of 3:42.83, the fastest regional 1,500 performance in the country. Henry said Gonzales will train just as he did a year ago, but with the options of running any of the three races at the regional or national level.
"We're going to train with the intention of running the 5,000 at nationals, but we're not going to put all of our eggs in one basket," he said. "We felt that last year he could've run a 1,500 and probably been very competitive at the national level as well, but we stuck to our original plan."
If Gonzales' preseason workouts are any indication, the junior should be an NCAA title contender in any race he finds himself in. According to Henry, Gonzales' training regiment for the USA National Cross Country team trials has been remarkable.
"He's still so young, but he's doing workout that just boggle my mind with what he can do," said Henry. "He's doing some training sessions that are just nuts. He's got unlimited ability if he can stay healthy."
In addition to Gonzales, several UNM distance standouts will look to make their mark on the regional stage, including a former MWC 10,000-meter champion, junior Ben Ortega (Taos, N.M.). A four-time all-conference honoree, Ortega won the 2001 MWC 10,000 title as a true freshman, then surpassed the old NCAA provisional qualifying mark in the event twice in 2002. After enduring some nagging injuries, then redshirting the 2003 outdoor track and cross country seasons, Henry said Ortega should be a force in the 10,000 and 5,000 meters once again this spring.
"Ben Ortega is back and he's going to be a dangerous 10,000 guy," said Henry. "The harder the course in cross country, the more laps on the track, the better he is and the more he enjoys it. To run that long on the track can really mess some people up, but for Ben Ortega that's all part of that challenge."
Another pair of juniors in Nick Martinez (Pojoaque, N.M.) and Cameron Clarke (Albuquerque, N.M.) could also be poised for a special season in 2004. Martinez broke through in his second year on the track to become a Midwest regional qualifier in the 5,000. Clarke, meanwhile, was one of the team's top 1,500-meter runners, finishing seventh in the event at the MWC Championships.
"We're really looking for some great things out of Nick and Cameron," said Henry. I think last year was just Nick's first step of doing some really special things and Cameron has got more tools than anybody else I have. He just needs to stay healthy and put in the workouts he needs, and he could be really special."
Senior Sean Flaherty (Albuquerque, N.M.) and junior Nate Clem (Albuquerque, N.M.) also return to give UNM a solid presence in the middle distance events. Former hurdler Matt Bishop could also emerge as a surprising force when he moves up to the 800 this season. Sophomore Brandon Vigil (Taos, N.M.) and freshmen Juan Ortega (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Steven Martinez (Pojoaque, N.M.), meanwhile, lead a group of promising young distance runners.
JUMPS/POLE VAULT -
The New Mexico horizontal and vertical jump group is a bit of a mystery entering the season. Three of head coach Matt Henry's top threats in the high jump are two-sport competitors at UNM who must first fulfill their commitments to their primary sport before joining the track and field team.
A high-flying forward on the men's basketball team, 6-5 junior Alfred Neale (Summit, Okla.) could be an All-America candidate in the high jump this spring after clearing 7-03.50 during his prep career and a career-best 7-04.50 during his only year of competition at Barton County Community College. Juniors Hank Baskett (Clovis, N.M.) and Mike Powdrell (Albuquerque, N.M.), who also double as wide receivers on the Lobo football team, are impact athletes in the high jump as well. A two-time runner-up at the MWC Outdoor Championships, the 6-4, 215-pound Baskett also jumped over seven feet in high school and owns a collegiate best of 6-10.25 in the event. Powdrell, meanwhile, also cleared 6-10.25 as a freshman before sitting out the 2003 season. The 5-10, 178-pound Powdrell could also be a conference scoring threat in the long jump, where he placed fifth at the 2002 championships.
Steadily improving junior Willie Yuen (Albuquerque, N.M.) is the Lobos' top returnee in the long and triple jumps. After breaking into the MWC finals last spring with an eighth place finish in the triple jump, Yuen will look to give UNM a scoring punch in both events in 2004. New Mexico could also get some help in the jumps from its top decathletes in senior Mark Johnson (Fontana, Wisc.) and sophomore Dan Feltman (Deming, N.M.). True freshmen Randle McCain, Gabe Trujillo (Pojoaque, N.M.) and Jeramie White (Hobbs, N.M.) could also make a solid impact this season.
Senior Branden Bennett (Phoenix, Ariz.) returns as the Lobos' marquee pole vaulter after injury limited him to just two competitions during the 2003 campaign. Ranked as high as 10th in the country early in the indoor season, Bennett was unable to overcome a nagging heel injury. This year, Henry said he hopes a healthy Bennett can reach his outstanding potential in the event.
"Branden is really an All-American caliber athlete - he's that good," said Henry. "He had surgery in the fall and hopefully by the latter part of the indoor season, Branden will get it going."
Junior Derek Mackel (Albuquerque, N.M.), sophomore Zach Bingham (Albuquerque, N.M.) and freshman Robert Caldwell (Socorro, N.M.) all have a solid upside in the event as well and will look to make their mark in 2004.
Through incredible hard work and perseverance, the UNM shot put, discus and javelin corps have worked to establish their strength in one of the nation's top throwing conferences. Perhaps no athlete better represents the Lobos' success story than senior Jason Barkemeyer (Belen, N.M.). After struggling at the bottom of the conference rankings as a true freshman, Barkemeyer placed sixth in the discus at the 2002 MWC Championships, then as a junior earned all-conference honors and notched an impressive 11th place finish in the shot put at the 2003 Midwest Regional Championships. This spring, the ambitious Barkemeyer has his sights set on becoming the first UNM conference shot put champion in over decade.
"He's the guy," said Henry. "He's gotten stronger, faster, has more knowledge and has worked extremely hard to get where he's at. Shot putting isn't just a sport for him - it's a part of life."
Like Barkemeyer, senior Jordan Parker (Albuquerque, N.M.) has also worked his way up from the bottom of the league rankings to become one of the top discus forces in the MWC. A finalist in the discus last spring, Parker will look to end his career on top in 2005 after redshirting the 2004 outdoor season. In the meantime, the Lobos could get a giant boost in the form of 6-4, 295-pound Guillermo Morrison (Copperas Cove, Texas). Morrison, a three-year letterwinner at nose tackle for the Lobo football team, was an all-MWC performer in the discus and a fifth place finisher in the shot put in 2002 before sitting out last season. Morrison's return could give New Mexico an impressive 1-2 punch with Barkemeyer in the shot and discus this spring.
Junior Joshua Parra (Deming, N.M.) and freshman Matthew Priest (Albuquerque, N.M.), both redshirts last spring, could make a nice impact in the hammer throw. Redshirt freshman Gary Hoodless (Cuba, N,M.), meanwhile, has a bright future in the shot put and discus after putting in a full year of training.
The homegrown Lobo javelin crew established itself as the league's best last season as an amazing five athletes placed among the top eight at the MWC Championships. Junior Matt Keeran (Albuquerque, N.M.) led the charge by earning all-conference honors in the event for the second straight year. Unfortunately, a nagging injury kept Keeran out of the Midwest Regional field and according to Henry, may limit his effectiveness in 2004.
"He still has a shoulder injury, but he's going to try to throw," he said. "He's never been 100 percent since he's been here, but if Matt Keeran can get healthy, he could be one of the best in the country. He's another guy who's not just a casual thrower. He really studies it and loves the javelin."
New Mexico returns both its No. 2 and 3 javelin throwers as well with decathlete Dan Feltman and sophomore Reuben Trujillo (Los Lunas, N.M.) back this spring. Feltman notched a season-best mark of 195-06 to finish fourth at the MWC meet, while Trujillo was sixth. Senior Jimmy Minner (Albuquerque, N.M.), a Midwest Regional qualifier last spring, will redshirt the 2004 season.
Stalwart senior Mark Johnson and future star Dan Feltman lead assistant coach Scott Steffan's decathlon crew this spring. Johnson, the 2002 MWC decathlon champion, enters his third year of multi-event competition after beginning his career as a long and triple jumper. A standout on the track and in the classroom, Johnson will look to reclaim his conference title in his final season in cherry and silver.
"To me, he's what a real student-athlete should be," said Henry. "He's great in the classroom and never, ever takes track and field for granted. He's always here and just doesn't miss a workout."
As a true freshman last year, Feltman was on pace for an impressive all-MWC finish in the decathlon before sending all three discus attempts out of bounds. This year, the 6-4 sophomore will look to establish himself as one of the league's premier competitors.
"You got to remember that he was only 18 years old (last year)," said Henry. "As he continues to improve his training and gain experience - it's going to be scary what that guy can do."