It was the goal, but the women’s 4×100-meter NCAA title eludes Oregon again
On June 7, the nation’s best track and field athletes will descend on Hayward Field for the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Oregon’s 4×100-meter relay team, one of, if not the best in the country, however, will not be among them.
At the NCAA West Regionals, Oregon’s collegiate record-breaking relay team was disqualified when Deajah Stevens stepped out of her lane. Since only the top 12 relay teams could compete at the outdoor championships, the Ducks missed out on arguably their best chance to claim the NCAA 4×100-meter relay title that has eluded them for years.
Once known primarily as a distance school, Oregon has evolved itself into a sprinting destination after hiring Curtis Taylor as the sprints and hurdles coach in 2014. But even though Oregon has produced some of the best sprinters in the nation, from former Ducks Jenna Prandini and English Gardner, to the current trio of juniors Hannah Cunliffe, Ariana Washington and Stevens, it still hasn’t won the relay title.
This season felt like it was the Ducks’ year, but that is no longer a possibility after the disqualification. It’s a tough end to what was already a rocky, though hopeful, season. Nevertheless, each member of the team may be back next year for one final go.
When the Oregon 4×100-meter relay team was up, it was sky high. During the team’s opener at the Florida Relays, the Ducks shot to the top of the NCAA leaderboard after they broke the collegiate record of 42.36 second set in 2009 by Texas A&M. Oregon finished in 42.34 seconds.
That was back in the beginning of April when the Oregon track and field outdoor season was just getting underway. Since it was the team’s first race, spectators believe that they peaked too early.
“Our relay has had its up and downs this season,” said Oregon junior Deajah Stevens.
The team believed it could do even better.
“A collegiate record is always a goal of ours,” redshirt sophomore Ariana Washington said. “We just didn’t think we would get it the first time out. “We made some mistakes, so we’re excited to know that we’re going to run faster.”
They did. Two weeks later, the Ducks travelled down to California for the Mt. Sac Relays and smashed their own record by finishing in 42.12 seconds.
They had many high points, but also their share of low ones, too. And, when they were down, it was heartbreaking.
Since the beginning of the season, the Oregon women sprinters made it a goal to win the NCAA 4×100-meter relay title, which they feel was stolen from them the year prior.
“It’s always at the back of our minds. We were talking about it in the summer. It’s a really big goal for us,” Stevens said. “At the beginning of the season last year, we were dominating, and we were like, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to take it all the way to nationals’.”
Last year, the Ducks seemed like a shoe-in for the title. They had the top time in the NCAA with 42.68 seconds. But after taking the Pac-12 title and breaking the meet record, everything fell apart.
The misfortune started with an injury to Hannah Cunliffe and continued with academic issues with Jasmine Todd. Because of that, the Ducks ran two alternates. The revised team still finished in third, but after dominating for the entirety of last year’s outdoor season, the finish left a sour taste in the Ducks’ mouths.
Although it is impressive that Oregon’s sprinting squad is so deep that the Ducks can run two alternates and still finish on the podium, it’s unsurprising because of their recent success in the sprints.
Under Taylor, more than 25 sprinters and hurdlers have earned All-American honors, while three of them took home NCAA titles: Phyllis Francis, Prandini and Washington, who won both the 100 and 200-meter last year.
Oregon’s sprinters have also made a name for themselves internationally. At the 2015 IAAF World Championships, three members of the American 4×100-meter relay team were former Oregon sprinters. Prandini, Gardner and Jasmine Todd joined up with Allyson Felix to take the silver medal.
“We’ve been able to develop that talent with what coach Taylor has been able to do there on the sprint side of things,” Oregon head coach Robert Johnson said.
But, still no 4×100-meter relay title.
“Kind of been snake-bitten with that relay,” Johnson said. “I say that because we went into last year with the fastest 4×100-meter collegiate time, and then of course, we had some adversity of our own that didn’t allow us to run the team that ran earlier in the year. We feel like it’s unfinished business.”
The Ducks were snake-bitten yet again this year and faced even more adversity.
After Todd graduated, Oregon needed to find another sprinter to fill the void. In came freshman Makenzie Dunmore, who heard of Oregon’s sprinting prowess all the way in Georgia. Primarily a 400-meter runner, Dunmore found a place as the starting leg for the Ducks’ relay after racing in the 60-meter dash during a couple of indoor meets.
“Makenzie had a huge impact,” Cunliffe said. “She has good starts; she’s very powerful.”
Though she fits in well with the team and has helped them break the collegiate record and school record, when Cunliffe needed to be replaced, it was not so seamless.
While the team traveled to the Penn Relays, where they added a meet record to their growing list of accomplishments, Cunliffe stayed home. According to Johnson, she had been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms, forcing her to drop out of the line-up. Alaysha Johnson, primarily a 100-meter hurdler, ran in her place.
At first, Cunliffe’s absence wasn’t that noticeable. She again didn’t run during the Pac-12 Championships, and Oregon still took the 4×100-meter relay title for the second year in a row.
During the prelims, despite the fact that Oregon came away with the top time of the day after finishing in 43.84 seconds, they were only one-hundredth of a second in front of USC’s team. Stevens believes that the hand-offs weren’t clean enough, hence the increased time.
The next day, during the finals, the Ducks won handily by crossing the line in 42.81 seconds. Stevens believed it was due to the much improved exchanges.
“The exchanges went a lot smoother today,” Alaysha Johnson said. “It’s really crazy because at any moment, anyone can be put out there. We just try to make sure we do everything in our ability to make sure we get the stick around, and that’s what we did, so I’m glad we came off with the win.”
Cunliffe was set to participate in the relay during regionals and believed that with her inclusion, the Ducks would race even better.
“I think, for sure, we’ll go 41 [seconds],” Cunliffe said after finishing in third after Stevens and Washington in the 100-meter at the Pac-12 Championships. “I wanted to run today, but I think it was best that I stayed out a bit. I’m just ready to get back into it at regionals.”
She didn’t get back into the line-up. Instead, her season prematurely ended for the second year in a row because of a hamstring injury.
Even though the inclusion of Cunliffe may not have had any impact on the disqualification in the relay, Duck fans will be left thinking about what could have been.
Still, since none of the four women who formed the collegiate record-breaking team are graduating, there is always next year, and Robert Johnson still has faith.
Follow Hannah Bonnie on Twitter @hbonnie03