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Can ONU challenge Mount Union for the conference crown this season?

The ONU men's indoor track & field team was picked by coaches to finish second in the OAC this season, behind five-time defending champion Mount Union. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

Last February, in the meet that mattered most to the Ohio Northern men’s indoor track & field team, they finished where they have three of the last four years -- in second place.

For the fifth straight year, Mount Union won the OAC Championship meet, scoring 231.5 points to ONU’s 151. Northern recorded their highest team point total in the conference meet since 2012, the last time they won it (and the end of their own five-year run as champions), but still lagged over 80 points behind the immensely balanced Purple Raiders.

So, with the 2018 season set to begin on Friday, these questions are posed: What separates Mount Union from ONU, and what are the chances that the Polar Bears can close the gap this season?

Degrees of separation

Last year, Mount Union was dominant in the sprint races and field events and “good enough” in the distance races, in the words of ONU head coach Jason Maus, to win by such an emphatic margin.

“Mount, right now, is very balanced across the board, honestly,” Maus said on Friday. “I don’t know if we were ever ahead on the men’s side last year [at the indoor OAC Championships].”

In the seven sprint races -- the 55-meter, 55-meter hurdles, 200-meter, 400-meter and 500-meter dashes, as well as the 4x200-meter and 4x400-meter relays -- Mount accumulated 122 points to Northern’s 22. A Mount Union runner or team won all seven races, as 16 different sprinters earned points (as opposed to six for ONU). In two of the seven races, Northern went scoreless.

When Northern hit the distance races, however, the tides turned. In the six distance races -- the 800-meter, 1,000-meter, one-mile, 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter races, as well as the distance medley relay -- ONU recorded 109 points to Mount’s 34. Ohio Northern runners or teams won five of the six distance events, as 10 different distance runners earned points (as opposed to five for Mount Union).

However, it was not as if Mount Union failed to compete in the distance races. Mount still earned points in every race and often found themselves with multiple runners in the mix.

“We scored a ton of points from the 800-up. I mean, we scored 100 points on the distance side of things, which is incredible. That’s a ton of points,” Maus said. “But they were good enough in the distance events and then they scored a lot of points in the sprints and in the field, and it was more than what we could do.”

After dominating the sprints and accumulating enough points in the distance races, Mount Union closed the deal by scoring 75.5 points in field events, well ahead of ONU’s 20.

Despite Northern’s success in the distance events, spurned by a group that featured OAC Indoor Distance Runner of the Year Kase Schalois and future national 800-meter runner-up Matt Molinaro, they simply could not compete with Mount in the other two facets of the meet -- the sprints and field events.

Mount Union’s depth in those areas could, in part, be attributed to the sheer numbers advantage that they have over Ohio Northern. Mount Union lists 75 men on their website as members of their track & field roster this season, while ONU lists 52 (the next-closest OAC program is John Carroll with 40). The Purple Raiders also list eight assistant coaches alongside head coach Kevin Lucas, while Northern has four listed alongside Maus.

Mount Union also has help from members of their historically dominant football team, as four Purple Raider football players scored points in last year’s OAC Championship meet. Defensive-back-turned-sprinter Louis Berry won the 60-meter dash and wide receiver Clark Etzler finished second in the 500-meter race. While Ohio Northern has had football players who have also ran track in the past, none scored for ONU at last year’s OAC meet.

Despite these apparent advantages, Maus believes that it’s Lucas’s recruiting -- along with the school’s esteemed athletic reputation -- that have helped Mount bring in athletes like AJ Digby, who was .02 seconds short of winning the indoor national title in the 400-meter dash as a freshman last season.

“Coach Lucas is a really good coach, he’s a tremendous recruiter. And I think some of the reputation of the sports at that university sell itself. I mean, they’re pretty good at everything,” Maus said. “[But] I think a lot of it is just coach Lucas and his coaching staff, who do a good job of recruiting and really hustling.”

And while Maus and his staff have been able to land top-notch recruits as well -- namely athletes like Molinaro and Schalois -- Lucas believes that his program’s recent success has helped build on itself when it comes to recruiting.

“Once you’ve been successful, I think high schoolers do notice that," Lucas said. "They want to come check out your program."

So, what will ONU have to do to close the gap and challenge Mount Union for the conference crown this February?

The task at hand

Unfortunately for ONU, the road does not get any easier this year. Although the team was ranked 22nd in the nation in the USTFCCCA preseason rankings and second in the OAC (behind Mount Union) in the preseason coaches poll, they are losing some key pieces from last year’s squad.

In the sprints, where they were already overwhelmed by Mount Union at last February’s OAC Championships, Jacob Vires -- who was the only Polar Bear to earn points in the 55-meter and 200-meter races -- has transferred, according to Maus. While distance will still be an area of strength for Maus’s squad, Northern did lose three runners who earned points at last February’s meet to graduation, including Schalois. And in field, ONU graduated national weight throw qualifier Lucas Shumate.

Conversely, 15 of the 16 sprinters who scored points for Mount Union at the OAC meet last year are back on this year’s team, as 11 of the 16 were freshmen or sophomores in 2017. Four of the six distance runners who scored for Mount will also return in 2018, as will eight of the 13 field athletes who earned points last February.

This means that Northern will have to rely on scoring from their young athletes, along with a strong showing from their veterans, in order to challenge Mount Union this winter. Maus said that while he likes the depth and talent of this year’s freshman class, it will be hard to gauge how they will fare in their first college competitions.

“It’s hard because it’s early, we haven’t really started,” Maus said. “There certainly are a few guys, but it’s hard. Unless you’re a big-time, stud freshman, it’s hard to contribute or score a lot of points at the conference meet. It just takes some time.”

“Especially on the men’s side; there’s a lot of difference between a 22 year-old guy and an 18 year-old guy. You’re older, you’re stronger, you’re wiser and you’ve got more experience.”

Maus hinted at a couple of freshmen who might make their presence felt right away. Colin McCullough, who won the OHSAA Div. II state championship in the 300-meter hurdles last spring, could provide a boost for Northern this winter.

“He comes in with big expectations,” Maus said. “He might be the headliner.”

McCullough comes in as part of a talented freshman hurdles crew, alongside Owen Lloyd, who went to state (in Indiana) last spring as well in the 110-meter hurdles. Maus mentioned that the freshman throws group has also looked promising and that the distance runners -- who he has already seen from cross country this fall -- could provide a spark as well. Jordan Green and Travis Sutter both qualified for nationals in cross country during their freshman campaigns.

But as Maus said, the adjustment from high school to college track & field is immense -- not only because of the rise in competition, but also because of the change in competition standards.

For hurdlers, the bar is raised from 39 inches in high school to 42 inches on the college track. The weight throw goes from 25 lbs. in high school to 35 lbs. in college, and the shotput goes from 12 lbs. to 16 lbs.

“Those are big changes, and it takes some time,” Maus said. “So, that’s going to be a transition. We’ll see.”

Alongside this year’s freshman class, Northern’s veterans will also need to put forth an all-time effort in order to compete for a conference title. Molinaro, who won both the 800-meter and mile races and was also a member of the first-place distance medley relay team last winter, will be asked to the same -- if not more -- in his senior campaign. Seven of the 11 runners who scored points for ONU in distance last year will return, alongside sprinters Conner Karg, Jared Butcher and Nicholas Krugh, who all earned points in last year’s conference meet.

However, only one field athlete who scored in last year’s meet -- senior high jumper Luke Bogdanovich -- will return this season.

Maus said that he and his staff put an emphasis on recruiting sprinters and field athletes to reload for this season, although the experience factor will likely not be in Northern’s favor when facing Mount Union in certain events this winter.

“We’ve got some numbers, which is good, but we’re young,” Maus said. “And it’s hard to win that way, especially when Mount is getting older in that aspect, as some of those kids are juniors and seniors.”

Although Northern was ranked nationally to begin the 2018 campaign, challenging seventh-ranked Mount Union in the OAC Championships this winter -- which will be held on Feb. 23 and 24 at Capital -- will be a tall task, to say the least.

Maus knows this. In turn, he said that his staff will focus on preparing the team from an individual standpoint, as they always do. Although the staff will strategize where to place certain qualifiers in order to amass the most total team points, at the end of the day, the message is the same for each athlete: do your job.

“In track and field it’s weird, you have to do things kind of individually. The guys in the 60 have to take care of their job to contribute to the team, and that has zero impact on the guys in the mile or the 5k or the pole vault or whatever,” Maus said. “So, [our coaching staff] tries to focus our event groups to do your part. Take care of business in your event or your event groups and then it all kind of comes together.”

In battling Mount Union’s depth, experience and recent history of success, however, it’s safe to say that this task will be easier said than done.