Winners of a conference title one year, host of a national championships the next.
For New Mexico track and field, that’s just par for the course.
After taking home their first men’s indoor conference championship in program history in 2013, the Lobos are gearing up for a season where the expectations — and the challenges — are at an all-time high.
As the host school of the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, UNM is primed to see some top-notch competition this season, which could translate to another year of success at the conference and national level.
“The conference, we have a shot to potentially win both,” New Mexico head coach Joe Franklin said. “It will be challenging, but we have a shot.”
The idea of challenges this season is prevalent. Both the men and women are strong teams, both with skilled groups of veterans and newcomers.
And every meet — from Saturday’s season-opening Lobo Collegiate Invitational to March’s NCAA Championships — is replete with some of the best teams in the nation, meaning the Lobos will get tested and gain experience throughout the season.
“[The strong schedule] just gives them opportunities at home without travelling in a very comfortable setting,” Franklin said. “You don’t have to go somewhere to have the best long jump competition in the United States, because it’s going to be here.”
But for a team that set program records across the board in 2013, that’s just par for the course.
To repeat as Mountain West champions, the men will look to duplicate the seven individual titles they won last year.
The men return five individual conference champions from last year’s MW title-winning team, and add a number of other potential all-conference athletes.
“We add people in, so I think we’re very similar, if not a little better team,” Franklin said.
The men lost only five of their scores from last year’s team, and have found new athletes who can fill in the gaps.
But veterans will be the ones spearheading the charge.
Luke Caldwell, winner of two events at last year’s MW meet, headlines the group of returning conference champs, which also features Alex Herring (800-meter run), Kendall Spencer (long jump), Django Lovett (high jump) and Richard York (heptathlon).
Caldwell, a distance standout, isn’t the only veteran runner with postseason designs, as he will be joined by Adam Bitchell (currently second in the nation in the 5,000 after competing in December), Elmar Engholm, Sean Stam, Graham Thomas and Patrick Zacharias.
In the field events, where Spencer (the 2012 NCAA indoor long jump champion) and Django Lovett call home, returnees Yannick Roggatz (long jump), Markus Miller (high jump) and Logan Pflibsen (pole vault) can also make noise come the postseason.
However, with all the returning talent, the newcomers are just as capable.
While the men bring back the bulk of last year’s title-winning team, the women don’t return their entire 2013 lineup.
But that’s not to say there isn’t talent.
“On the women’s side, we lose some very good ones,” Franklin said. “... But there are people that we’re adding in that will score [at the conference championships].”
Despite graduating almost half of their conference scorers from a year ago, the women have plenty of talent returning or coming in.
The jumps are one example of this, with all-conference jumpers Yeshemabet Turner (long jump, triple jump) and Casey Dowling (long jump, triple jump) returning and prep standouts Jannell Hadnot and Lindsay Read arriving.
Likewise, the women’s distance team features talented tracksters Charlotte Arter, Chloe Anderson and Kirsten Follett -- all of whom earned all-conference plaudits in 2013 -- while adding new talent in Harvard transfer Sammy Silva, Tennessee transfer Amber Zimmerman and UK import Calli Thackery.
The rest of the field events, including pole vaulters Margo Tucker, Nathalie Busk and Annie Stirling and pentathletes Samantha Bowe and Holly Van Grinsven also return considerable talent from 2013. All five scored at a conference meet last year.
The sprints, hurdles and relays are one group of events that doesn’t have the experience that the others do, however.
Kayla Fisher-Taylor is the lone veteran in the short sprints, while the rest of the sprints will showcase relative youth in Mount San Antonio College transfers Ariel Burch in the 400 and Brittany Myricks and underclassmen Zoe Howell, Christina Clark, Mackenzie Kerr, Haley Sanner and Lucretia Vigil.
With the NCAA Championships at New Mexico this year, the Lobos will receive the perk of a staunch home schedule, featuring high-profile track and field programs at every meet.
The Lobos open Saturday hosting the Lobo Collegiate Invitational at the Albuquerque Convention Center, as they welcome BYU, New Mexico State and Utah State, among others, for an early season meet.
About half of UNM's team will compete in the event, Franklin said, as the team gears up for its unprecedentedly challenging schedule that includes five straight home meets -- starting with Saturday’s Lobo Invite.
“I think we’re a little more prepared at this time of year than we have been,” Franklin said.
After Saturday, the Lobos will host the Cherry & Silver Invitational on Jan. 24-25 as they face off against premier teams in Arizona, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, San Diego State, USC, Stanford, Texas and UTEP.
The next weekend’s meet, however, is the best of the bunch, according to Franklin.
The New Mexico Team Invitational on Feb. 1, is the litmus test for this Lobo squad, and rightfully so.
“I think you’re building until February 1,” Franklin said. “February 1 is the first time that everyone will competing, barring injuring.”
The New Mexico Team Invitational brings a number of prestigious schools to Albuquerque, including Air Force, Arizona State, LSU, Nebraska, Notre Dame, UCLA, Utah State and TCU.
“From a track fan standpoint, if I could pick one meet other than the NCAA Championships to go to, that’s it.”
The following weekend, Feb. 7-8, New Mexico will host the New Mexico Collegiate Classic, which again features top-notch teams in Kansas State, San Diego State, Texas, Texas Tech and Washington.
The last home meet, the Don Kirby Elite Invitational, rivals the New Mexico Team Invite on prestige as Arizona, Arizona State, California, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina, Oregon, USC, Stanford, San Diego State and UTEP come to the Albuquerque Convention Center on Feb. 14-15.
“It’s a big meet and it’s super high quality,” Franklin said. “… That’s when we’re going to get some national qualifiers.”
That same weekend, the Lobos distance squad will debut at the Washington Husky Classic. It’s the final chance for UNM’s harriers to qualify to the NCAAs before the team treks to Air Force for the Mountain West Championships from Feb. 27 to March 1.
For the first time since 2009, the Lobos will head to Colorado Springs, Colo., for the conference meet, as the men look to repeat at champions and the women look to build on last year’s runner-up finish.
Both teams are in position to win titles, Franklin said, but will need things to go right for them and wrong for other teams to make a reality.
Franklin points to host-team Air Force as the preseason conference favorite on the men’s side, while San Diego State is the team to beat for the women.
The location also presents a challenge, with Air Force at 7,200 feet elevation, vs. UNM at about 5,000 feet.
However, two weeks later, the Lobos will have a chance to compete at home as they host the NCAA Championships.
While qualifying and advancing to the national championships is no easy task, New Mexico has its opportunities, given the rigorous home schedule and the caliber of athletes on the roster.
“If we could a couple of women and couple of men, that’s pretty darn good,” Franklin said.
But for a Lobo team that has won titles and will host championships, it’s just par for the course.