WICHITA, Kan. — Hopes are high for the Northern Iowa men’s track and field team heading into the Missouri Valley Conference Outdoor Championships this weekend.
The Panthers, who are searching for their first conference title since 2009, enter as the No. 2 seed and return a lot of firepower from a team that placed third at conference a year ago.
Not surprisingly, the highest level of optimism surrounds Brandon Carnes, a 14-time individual MVC champion aiming to defend his crown in the 100- and 200-meter dash.
The senior sprinter is looking to earn “Most Outstanding” honors for the third year in a row. He claimed the Most Outstanding Track award last season, after being named Co-Most Valuable Athlete in 2015.
Carnes isn’t the only Panther set for a title defense. Sophomore Isaac Holtz will look for a discus repeat after winning the event with a 54.43 meter throw a season ago.
Brad Walski, the discus runner-up last season, enters with the top ranking in hammer throw, while Shane Kirchoff (3,000 steeplechase) and Jon Rus (110 hurdles) are ranked second in their respective events.
“We’re right in the thick of things, so we just have to maximize our opportunities,” UNI Coach Dave Paulsen said.
“(If we) put people through to the finals and compete our best, we should do well.”
To end the seven-year conference drought, UNI will likely have to go through defending champion Wichita State.
The Shockers earned 63 points in the pre-race poll, eight better than the Panthers.
Though respecting the Shockers as an opponent, Paulsen says his guys will be ready for them.
“You don’t run the meet on paper,” he said. “Those are just rankings. I’m confident we’re going to be at our best.”
On the women’s side, UNI is much younger than a year ago, when it placed second to Wichta State. This is reflected in the pre-race poll, where the Panthers were picked to finish fifth.
The Shockers earned the top seed in the women’s race as well with 81 points. Illinois State was second with 70.
Despite some key losses, including two-time Most Valuable Athlete Paige Knodle, UNI still has some notable strengths, particularly in field events.
Kassidy Sharpe and Maria Gonzalez are projected to finish 1-2 in the high jump. Also getting No. 2 rankings for the Panthers were Sarah Pate (hammer) and Hannah Truniger (5,000).
“I think third or fourth would be a great place for us,” Paulsen said. “We’ve got a young team and that could be a good experience for them to build off of for next year.”
The Outdoor Championship, hosted by Wichita State, begins at 10 a.m. Friday and runs through Sunday afternoon.