Like most college sports, track and field is dominated by the football schools with big money and big names.
So when Wichita State's women's team elbows its way into the same neighborhood as Michigan, Florida, Arizona and Tennessee, coach Steve Rainbolt wants people to know.
"This is a hell of a women's team," Rainbolt said.
WSU is No. 20 in the national dual rankings calculated by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. Performances for all 305 Division I teams are logged and weighed against each other. According to this ranking, WSU would win a dual against 284 schools, many of them the big names from the power conferences.
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The Shockers compete in the Missouri Valley Conference Indoor Championships beginning Saturday and are the favorite in the coaches poll.
Rainbolt expects WSU to win, perhaps easily. It is likely the best women's team in Rainbolt's 11 years at WSU, stronger than last season's indoor champion.
"There aren't many events where we let up," he said. "I would think we will be a prohibitive favorite."
WSU's strength starts with its distance runners. Aliphine Tuliamuk ranks fifth nationally in the 5,000 meters with a time of 15 minutes, 53.74 seconds. Tonya Nero is eighth with a time of 16:01.69. Those are the top times in MVC history.
Tuliamuk transferred to WSU from Iowa State at semester break, adding a national talent to an already strong group.
"That was a significant knockout punch," Rainbolt said.
Sprinter Audacia Moore owns the Valley's top times in the 60 (7.44 seconds) and the 200 (23.80). She ranks third in the triple jump (39 feet, 9 3/4 inches) and long jump (18-10). Teammate La'Taish Brown ranks first in the long jump at 20-3 1/2.
Rainbolt knew he could count on those performers. The development of athletes such as sophomore Jennifer Taylor keeps the Shockers on top. Taylor, a sophomore from Lawrence, didn't make a final in the 800 meters as a freshman. This season, she owns the MVC's fourth-best time (2:09.97). She cut back on processed foods and sweets — Oreos are a favorite — and trained hard over the summer.
"Over the summer, I kind of transformed myself," she said. "Coming out of high school, I would always make finals. Last year it opened my eyes that I actually had to work for this."
Taylor noticed the improvement last fall in WSU's training runs.
"We had a hill workout... and I was keeping up with the guys," she said. "It gave me a real confidence boost."
WSU swept the MVC indoor titles in 2010. The men's team is dealing with injuries and a suspension that will cut into its depth. The Shockers are picked second in the pre-championship poll.
Triple jumper Josh Crawford is suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. Crawford, a senior from Clearwater, Fla., won the MVC indoor and outdoor triple jumps in 2009 and 2010. His mark of 51-0 3/4 is the top mark in the MVC this year.
Long jumper Tyler Simmons, No. 1 in the MVC, is slowed by a sore left ankle and is training to jump off his right foot this weekend. Krzysztof Slupkowski, the Valley's leading heptathlete, will compete despite a groin strain.