Rebekah Topham is Wichita State’s best female distance runner, a multiple-time Missouri Valley Conference champion and the bridge from last season’s great MVC track team to the American Athletic Conference.
That AAC future with Topham, however, will likely wait until the 2018-19 school year. She won Saturday’s JK Gold Classic running unattached and plans to redshirt for cross country and track and field in 2017-18.
Topham, a junior from Griswold, Iowa, said she revisited her desire to redshirt last spring after she failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships in track and field. Her goals are high and she figured a year to focus on training made sense.
“I was kind of disappointed after track that I didn’t make nationals … and I want a year to really step up my game so that I can make it the next two years,” she said.
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Topham said she thought about redshirting earlier in her college career. She did not and recognized her junior season represented the last chance. She and her parents proposed the redshirt year to Shocker coaches during the summer.
That choice forces coaches to weigh individual and team goals.
The long-term picture gives Topham a chance to develop into a national-level runner. WSU cross country coach Kirk Hunter pointed to Missouri senior Karissa Schweizer, a 2017 NCAA champion, as a role model. No. 15 Missouri won Saturday’s meet, although Schweizer did not run.
“We want to give our athletes the absolute best opportunity to achieve their dreams,” Hunter said. “She is a girl, I believe, that could potentially be a national champion.”
The short-term pain, however, means that WSU enters the new conference without one of its best athletes. A rebuilding women’s cross country team loses its lead runner and defending MVC champion. A rebuilding women’s track and field team loses an athlete capable of scoring 15-20 points in a conference meet.
“We’re going to miss her badly if we stick with this plan, and right now we’re committed to sticking with this plan,” track and field coach Steve Rainbolt said. “A real good individual is more significant in a 12-team league than in a nine or 10-team league. The points are spread out more. A 20-point girl is more valuable. So this is hard.”
The upside arrives in the fall of 2018 when the Shockers get Topham for two more seasons and her freshman and sophomore teammates are a year older and more ready to compete in the American.
“I love the idea of seeing Rebekah Topham achieve at an extremely high level for the next two years,” Rainbolt said.
Topham will spend the year training with the team and running in meets unattached. On Sept. 30, she will compete unattached in the Chile Pepper Festival in Fayetteville, Ark., while the rest of the Shockers are running in different meets that weekend. She won’t benefit from the motivation of running for Wichita State and competing in conference and NCAA meets.
“I have the ability to push her a little harder, get a few more miles in, to get her to grow as a runner,” Hunter said. “The drawback to that is, you’re not racing with your team. And there is no better motivation than having your uniform on. Running is her life. She’ll do anything to become the best she can.”
More Texas flavor — Plano West shortstop Jack Sigrist became the eighth Texan from the class of 2018 to give Shocker baseball a non-binding commitment.
The lure of playing time attracted Sigrist (6-0, 185 pounds). The Shockers will lose most of the 2018 lineup to graduation or the draft, which means newcomers in the fall of 2018 have a chance to play in 2019.
“I fell in love with the place,” Sigrist said. “I know they’re bringing in good recruits and I’m looking forward to being part of something special.”
WSU’s entrance into the American Athletic Conference helped because of its presence in Texas with Houston and SMU (which doesn’t play baseball) and prominent baseball programs such as Tulane and East Carolina.
“The conference change is huge for me,” he said. “The American is pretty big here.”
WSU also recently received a non-binding commitment from Olathe South senior outfielder Ryan Koval.
Worth noting — Wichita State’s men’s basketball game at Oklahoma State on Dec. 9 is a 3 p.m. tip and televised on ESPN2. … On Pace with Shocker Track and Field debuted last week on YouTube and features an interview with former WSU distance runner Aliphine Tuliamuk. … Wichita State’s fall softball camp is Sept. 9 with defensive drills (9 a.m.-11:30 a.m.), hitting (noon-2:30 p.m.) and pitching (3-4 p.m.). For information visit shockerssoftballcamps.com.