Wichita State track and field coach Steve Rainbolt looked at eight freshmen male athletes and told them he needed a private talk.
“We thought we were all in trouble,” jumper Jared Belardo said. “We had a little concerned look on our faces.”
No cause for concern. Cause for celebration.
Rainbolt called those freshmen aside after a team meeting at the Clarion Inn in Cedar Falls, Iowa in late February. The Shockers finished the first day of the Missouri Valley Conference Indoor Championships and Rainbolt gathered the team to recap the scoring and set goals for the next day. As he spoke, he noticed freshmen piling up points.
So Rainbolt took the group into an adjoining conference room to reinforce that point.
“I said ‘This is an unbelievable freshman class,’” he said. “’I don’t remember us having a group like this. It’s remarkable in a tough track and field league for a bunch of freshmen to be scoring points and making contributions.’”
WSU won the men’s indoor title and finished second in the women’s standings. Freshmen scored 37 of the men’s 141.5 points and 11 of the women’s 111. That level of contribution on the men’s side, is in Rainbolt’s memory, unprecedented in his 16 years at WSU.
The influence of those eight male athletes who competed in the MVC indoor meet, and several others, is just as strong during the outdoor season, which continues in the K.T. Woodman Classic on Friday and Saturday at Cessna Stadium. With one month remaining before the MVC Outdoor Championships, Rainbolt expects the Shockers to contend again.
“I can’t imagine there’s ever been a group of … guys like this,” he said. “We’re going to ride this wave.”
Belardo, from Leavenworth, is the elite performer of the group, already an NCAA All-American after finishing 12th in the long jump in the NCAA Indoor Championships in March with a leap of 24 feet, 1 inch. At the MVC meet, he scored 20 of those points with first-place finishes in the long jump (25-9 1/2) and the triple jump (51-2 3/4). His outdoor bests of 24-5 in the long jump and 50-6 in the triple jump should qualify him for the NCAA West Prelims.
What makes the class imposing is the depth.
Nick Dow (100 meters), Kaden Griffin (400, decathlon), A.J. Stephens (110-meter high hurdles), Austin Corley (400 hurdles), Andale’s Hayden Bugner (pole vault) all rank in the top 10 of MVC outdoor performances. That list doesn’t include Ben Johnson, who finished fifth in the heptathlon or Zack Penrod, who finished sixth in the mile, at the MVC indoor meet.
“We have Jared, who’s already an All-American, and all of us freshmen seem to have the will to work hard,” Corley said. “You see other people’s success and, if they’re working hard and they’re being successful, it makes you want to work harder.”
The women’s team isn’t as deep in freshmen talent, but it does feature some high-end performers. Rebekah Topham owns the MVC’s top outdoor time in the 1,500 meters (4:25.02). Redshirt freshman Carlea Holt, from Cheney, leads the MVC with a throw of 154-8 in the javelin and seventh in the heptathlon with 4656 points. Claudia Rojo ranks fourth in the heptathlon with 4,965 points.
“We’re already good, and so we’ll just keep developing,” Belardo said. “Hopefully, we’ll be one of the best teams, overall, that has ever come through here.”
Bringing together that much talent is a mixture of good fortune, diligent recruiting and timely improvement. Rainbolt couldn’t have predicted that Stephens would adjust so smoothly from the 39-inch hurdles in high school to 42 inches in college.
“Right away, he scored sixth in our league (indoor),” Rainbolt said. “Normally, that will take a year or two to make that adjustment.”
Belardo’s marks before his senior year at Leavenworth didn’t predict his college success.
“We recruited him in the fall of his senior year, based on his junior year in high school marks, which were good, not great” Rainbolt said. “Then his senior year, he had some great marks. He came here and improved again, another foot in the long jump and two feet in the triple jump.”
The story with Corley is similar. His junior times at Adrian (Mo.) didn’t necessarily project him winning the 300 hurdles at the KU Relays as a senior or leading the MVC with a time of 52.71 in the 400 hurdles as a freshman. He redshirted during the indoor season to handle the physical demands of college.
“I’m getting healthier now and trying to stay on top of my body,” he said. “It’s an all-year thing, so your body is getting pretty pounded.”
WSU recruited Griffin, from South High, to compete in the multi-events. Griffin, who won the Class 6A 400 run and the 300 hurdles as a senior, is forcing coaches to reconsider. His performances in the long jump, triple and jump and 400 might make him too valuable to compete in the decathlon.
“He’s put himself in a position where we don’t know what to do with him, because he’s so good,” Rainbolt said. “When you do the decathlon, it’s hard to come back and do other things.”
K.T. Woodman Classic
- Coverage of the track and field meet at Cessna Stadium begins at 10:30 a.m. Friday and noon Saturday on livestream.com/wsuathletics.
- Saturday’s action will also be shown on WSU-TV, Cox 13