You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their words.
It's the same focused gaze I saw in Ashton Eaton's eyes at last summer's Olympic Trials when he defied the elements to break the decathlon world record.
The University of Oregon women's track team exudes an attitude of purpose and determination I haven't often seen—at any level of sport.
Four straight runner-up finishes at the outdoor national championships will tend to do that.
The collective frustration of coming so close and the resulting resolve to finally break through is exemplified by this tweet from junior 800-meter specialist Laura Roesler:
Once I'm on a path towards something I REALLY want, no one or nothing can stand in my way or distract me. I got a one-track frame of mind— Laura Roesler (@lroesler5) May 19, 2013
The concept of "team" has never been more pronounced. Roesler's sentiments run through the entire women's squad as if an outdoor championship were definitely possible—even probable.
But because everyone on the team understands the enormity of the task and the quality of the competition, they cannot yet utter the words I know they are thinking: outdoor champions.
Which leads one to ask—considering the previous four years of not quite grasping the ultimate prize—"what makes this year any different?"
The extra impetus of having a shot at an unprecedented triple crown is the short answer. In the current academic year, the Ducks women have already captured national Division 1 titles in cross country and indoor track.
The long answer includes factors like home-field advantage (the NCAA championships will be held at Oregon's Hayward Field June 5-8), a particularly deep and versatile team this year and a bit of an underdog role with the likes of Kansas and Texas A&M dominating the polls throughout the season.
There, the top 12 finishers in each event will advance to the championships in Eugene. The controversial qualifying format has detractors arguing that the trip to the preliminary sites is an unnecessary and risky requirement for college's top stars, who often have no incentive to go all-out but intentionally perform just well enough to advance.
But it does provide an arena where the so-called bubble athlete can step up and earn an unexpected spot on the championship team.
Given Oregon's strong team dynamic and laser-like focus, the unsavory prospect of becoming a spectator and not a competitor on Hayward's home turf should push many of the second-tier Lady Ducks to personal bests in Austin.
This leads me to predict Oregon will bring a surprisingly strong team—in terms of quantity and quality—to the championships.
And don't forget that most of Oregon's specialists have multiple-use capability. Expect coach Robert Johnson to devise a plan in Austin that will maximize Oregon's scoring potential in Eugene.
For example, the Ducks' defending 100-meter champion, English Gardner, could be asked (she'll probably beg) to step into the blocks of the 200—in addition to duty on the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays. Gardner, whose self-proclaimed baby is the 100, turned a blistering 22.62 seconds at the recent Pac-12 Track & Field Championships—a time which could easily score points in the 200 championship finals.
I noticed on the entry list that Johnson does have Gardner penciled into a 200 slot.
In fact, peering over the lists, there are several X-factors who could translate into surprise points for Oregon. Here a few random examples:
- Sophomore Lauren Crockett in the high jump
- Freshman Jenna Prandini, a sure points-getter in the sprints or relay, could score in the long jump as well
- Sophomore Jillian Weir in the hammer
- Multi-sport freshman Liz Brenner in the javelin
A triple crown for the women of Oregon would certainly be another high-water mark in a community already known as Track Town, USA. But there exists another plot twist that would surely rattle the old timbers of Hayward—a sweep of both the women's and men's titles.
And that is not outside the realm of possibility. The men, like the women, are currently ranked No. 3 in the most recent rankings and have been gaining momentum.
But that's another story for another day. Let's see how things shake out in Austin.