Ready to repeat

BLACKSBURG - The ongoing renovations to Rector Field House call for the building of an area to display the Virginia Tech track and field teams’ ACC championship trophies among other awards and honors.

The program desperately needs such an area. Dave Cianelli’s office looks a little cluttered these days with 10 ACC team trophies tucked away in various places within his lair.

Cianelli, the director of Tech track and field and cross country, saw his Tech men’s team demolish the competition at the ACC Outdoor Track and Field Championships last May in Tallahassee, Florida en route to the team’s sixth ACC title. It was almost a perfect performance, as the Hokies won four gold medals and six silver medals, scoring 129 points and winning in a landslide (36 points).

“I’ve been coaching for 33 years, and that’s happened maybe three times,” Cianelli said of his team’s performance. “Maybe four. In our sport, it doesn’t happen much.”

Bolstered by 14 seniors, the men’s team appears to be in excellent shape to make yet another run at an ACC crown and finish high at the NCAA Championships. The women’s team features 10 seniors, and that team should be much improved this upcoming season.

How much is the Rector Field House project going to help your programs?

DC: “I think the biggest thing is in recruiting because recruits will be able to see that we’ve invested in our sport, and I think that’s important. They can see that track and field is important here at Virginia Tech. Then from a training aspect, it will be a much better situation for everyone, and then for our meets, this facility will allow us to showcase some of the better athletes. Overall, it helps everything.”

The men’s team has won at least one ACC title in five of the past six years. Why have the men enjoyed so much success recently?

DC: “We’ve been fortunate in the recruiting process to attract some very good student-athletes that fit into our program. It starts with that, and that’s a product of our staff identifying the right people. Identifying talent in our sport is pretty easy because you’re working with numbers. You have something quantitative that you can compare. But you have to dig deeper to find who is going to be a good fit for your environment — Virginia Tech and our team. That’s the harder part. That takes time. The coaches have done a wonderful job of identifying the right fits.”

The women’s team finished 12th at the ACC’s indoor meet and 9th at the outdoor meet last year. Yet you’re optimistic about this group. Why?

DC: “I said last year that I really thought that this year would be a turning point based on the development of the kids that we have in the program and also this influx of freshmen that we have. Coaches are leery of expecting a lot out of freshmen, but I’m optimistic about this group contributing immediately, and that can put us in an area where we can start talking about a championship. Even if we don’t win one this year, I think we’re going to be close, and to me, that’s a key. If you get close, then the athletes can kind of feel it. It’s more real to them. For us, I think this year will be that breakthrough year.”

What concerns you heading into this season?

DC: “Well, you’ve got to keep everyone healthy to have a shot. That’s always key. But also, complacency is always a concern when you’re coming off a successful year, like we had on the men’s side. It’s human nature to sometimes relax a little bit. Even as coaches, I think we do that. What I try to do with the staff – and they carry that over to the team – once the previous year is over, it’s over. We never talk about the previous year. I never say, ‘You’re trying to defend a title.’ They’re not. That title was won by that group. This group is a different group, and they’re going to have to establish what they want, and they may go about it a different way.

“But this is a pretty mature team overall, so I’m not too worried about them becoming complacent. I think there is a lot of leadership, and I think it’s a group that is motivated. We lost a couple of key people to graduation. These were people that were at a high level and contributing, but also ones that provided a lot of leadership. Now, other individuals will have to fill that role. We have those people, which is good.”

MEN’S DISTANCE

Top returners

Andrew Gaiser, Daniel Jaskowak, Peter Seufer, Neil Gourley, Patrick Joseph, Brent Musselman, Vincent Ciattei, Diego Zarate

Newcomers

Fitsum Seyoum, Jack Joyce, Drew Piazza

Overview

This group lost arguably the best distance runner in Tech history in Thomas Curtin, but the returning group possesses both talent and depth in the middle distance and longer distance events.

In the longer distances – the 3,000- 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs – Gaiser, Jaskowak, Seufer and Musselman form a formidable quartet. Gaiser, who scored for Tech in the 10,000 at the ACC Outdoor Championships last spring, and Jaskowak are coming off cross country seasons in which both earned All-NCAA Southeast Region and All-ACC honors. Those two serve as the leaders of the group.

Gourley, Joseph and Zarate lead the way in the middle distance events. Gourley earned second-team All-America honors in the 1,500 during the outdoor season last spring and won a silver medal at the ACC Championships in the same event. Zarate also excels in the 1,500, having won a gold medal at the USA Junior Outdoor Championships this past summer.

Joseph is a two-time All-American and two-time ACC champion. He earned second-team All-America honors in the 800 during the outdoor season and won silver in the same event at the ACC Championships.

Any of this contingent is capable of scoring at an ACC meet – or even winning.

Distance coach Ben Thomas’ take

“Tommy Curtin is irreplaceable. You can’t replace Tommy Curtin. He is arguably the best distance runner we ever had, but we also have more pieces overall. Guys like Andrew Gaiser really stepped up in the cross country season, as well as Daniel Jaskowak. They are both coming off the best fall they’ve ever had. Hopefully, a combination of individuals can replace some of the points we miss with Tommy Curtin gone.

“[In middle distances], we have a lot of experience coming back. We have Neil Gourley and Patrick Joseph. Transfer Drew Piazza has competed at a high level coming from New Hampshire. He’s been to the NCAA Indoor Championships before, so I think he will really boost our efforts in the middle distance area as well.”

WOMEN’S DISTANCE

Top returners

Hanna Green, Shannon Morton, Tessa Riley, Abigail Motley, Katie Kennedy, Lauren Berman, Rachel Pocratsky

Newcomers

Laurie Barton, Sara Freix, Kayla Richardson, Sarah Edwards

Overview

This season marks the final one for Green, a four-time All-American and the school record holder in the 800. She won the gold medal in the event at both ACC meets in 2016, earning All-America honors during the indoor season.

She anchors a mix of seniors and underclassmen. Morton, Motley and Riley, three seniors, bring experience, though Motley may take a redshirt year. Morton earned second-team All-America honors in the mile last winter and only has outdoor eligibility remaining. Riley possesses talent, but injuries seem to crop up at inopportune times for her. Hopefully, she stays healthy this spring and gives the Hokies some points in the distance events.

Kennedy and Pocratsky will be ones to watch this season. Kennedy, a junior, enjoyed a fantastic fall in which she earned All-NCAA Southeast Region and All-ACC honors in cross country. Pocratsky, a sophomore, earned All-ACC honors during both the indoor and outdoor seasons last year, excelling at both the 800 and the 1,500.

The freshmen ran well during the cross country season, and the coaches hope to see that carry over to the track. Overall, the group is deeper than last year.

Distance coach Ben Thomas’ take

“I see Hanna Green having a great year. She was No. 2 in the country last year in the 800 meters for the indoor season. She’s looking good. She’s overcome a few injury bugs that she had in the fall, but overall, she has been training very well. She is in her last indoor and outdoor season, so she is fired up and hoping to go after a national title.

“Freshmen Laurie Barton and Sarah Edwards are two really solid newcomers that can give us some strength as well. Katie Kennedy just came off her best cross country season ever. She has really stepped up her game, and I think she definitely has a chance to help us in the longer distances this track season. All those folks can really help us in trying to get back to the top of the ACC.”

MEN’S POLE VAULT

Top returners

Torben Laidig, Brad Johnson, Jeffrey Linta, James Steck, Deakin Volz

Newcomer

Jaelyn Demory

Overview

This group claimed the top seven spots at last spring’s ACC Outdoor Championships, paced by Chris Uhle’s gold medal. Uhle graduated, but the rest of the group returns and should provide the points needed for the Hokies to be in the hunt for an ACC team crown at both the indoor and outdoor meets.

Laidig and Volz lead the bunch. Laidig won a silver medal at the NCAA Championships last June, while Volz set the school record in winning the gold medal at the IAAF U20 World Championships in Poland this past July.

The others are no less impressive. Johnson, the 2015 ACC outdoor champion in the event, won a bronze medal at the league’s indoor meet last February and then earned second-team All-America honors at the NCAA’s outdoor meet. Linta finished fourth at the ACC’s outdoor meet, while Steck finished in the top six at both ACC events.

The expectations are high for this group – and they should be. No other program in the ACC boasts the talent and depth of the Hokies in this event.

Pole vault coach Bob Phillips’ take

“We have three All-Americans in Torben Laidig, Deakin Volz and Brad Johnson. Torben and Brad have been conference champions, and Deakin was just a freshman last year who medaled at the conference outdoor meet and went on to have an outstanding summer season. He won the U20 World Championships in Poland, so those guys are going to contribute a lot to the leadership of the team. With the quality of athletes that we have coming back, I really think that they can accomplish some really great things this year.”

WOMEN’S POLE VAULT

Top returners

Erica Hjerpe, Kristen Lee, Hannah Meador, Olivia Privitera,

Newcomers

None

Overview

The women’s squad lacks the depth of the Hokies’ male counterparts in this discipline, particularly after Erinn Schaal and Emma King – two point scorers at the ACC’s outdoor meet – departed. But that doesn’t mean the Hokies plan on throwing away points in the pole vault, as three of the four returners scored points at the ACC’s meets.

Meador, a junior, recorded the team’s highest finish in the event, coming in sixth at the ACC outdoor meet last spring. She also finished eighth at the league’s indoor meet, and one would expect her to take the next step in her development.

The same applies to Hjerpe, who came in seventh at the league’s indoor meet, but injuries limited her during the outdoor season. If she remains healthy, she could contend for a medal at either league meet this season.

Privitera placed eighth at the league’s outdoor meet in the spring, while Bell adds depth and hopefully develops into a vaulter with an ability to score points at the ACC meets.

Pole vault coach Bob Phillips’ take

“Erica was jumping fantastic during the outdoor season last year. She was jumping at a level that would’ve taken her to the national meet, but she hurt her toe. She’s over that injury now and training well, so I look at her to be a big contributor. Hannah is back, and she has scored at both the indoor and outdoor conference meets last year. All those kids are working hard. While there may not be one person who tends to be the leader, they definitely know where they are heading as a group.”

MEN’S THROWS

Top returners

Jaka Muhar, Marek Barta, Collin McKenny, Matija Muhar

Newcomers

None

Overview

The Hokies saw arguably their most consistent thrower depart in Tomas Kruzliak, a five-time All-American and the 2013 national champion in the hammer throw. But three ACC medalists return, including two who qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships – and one who earned All-America honors.

This group figures to be much stronger during the outdoor season than the indoor one, as they all excel more in the outdoor events – the javelin throw and the discus.

Barta leads the way after a fantastic 2016 season in which he became the first Tech track athlete ever to earn All-America honors in the discus. The ACC silver medalist finished third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and holds the school record in the event. He competed in the shot put during the indoor season, but did not place at the ACC’s indoor meet.

The Muhar brothers are javelin specialists. Matija Muhar, the younger of the two, won the ACC title on just one throw, and he qualified for the NCAA Championships, where he finished 19th. He underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, but should be ready for action later this spring. Jaka Muhar finished second behind his brother at the ACC’s outdoor meet.

Like Barta, McKenny competes in the discus, and he also competed in the shot put during the indoor season. He’ll be looking to provide points toward the Hokies’ team totals at league meets.

For the first time in a long time, the men’s throws group lacks a specialist in the hammer throw – historically the program’s most successful event. But the Hokies possess the talent to win the javelin and discus, or finish highly in those events.

Throws coach Greg Jack’s take

Matija [Muhar] had a great fall in terms of training. I really like how he is progressing. Jaka [Muhar] is an outstanding student-athlete. He is an all-around guy. He is always there to help us out at the conference and national level. The two of those guys are the best one-two punch in our league. They went one and two last year [in the javelin], and I fully expect them to do it again.

“Marek [Barta] is a super talented guy. He placed third at the national championship, and we want to improve on that. Why come in second when you can come in first? He definitely has all the ability in the world, and we look forward to seeing how the season progresses for him.”

WOMEN’S THROWS

Top returners

Irena Sediva, Pavla Kuklova, Eva Vivod

Newcomers

Emma Thor, Kajsa Wennberg

Overview

The Tech women’s team may not be getting points from this group at the ACC indoor meet, as this group, like with the men’s group, excels in the outdoor events – the javelin throw and the hammer throw.

But the Hokies could finish first and second at the ACC outdoor meet in both the hammer throw and the javelin. They realistically have that type of talent.

Sediva anchors the group. The 2015 national champion in the javelin suffered an injured heel during the ACC Championships last spring and that prevented her from repeating as both the ACC champion and the NCAA champion in the event. But the school record holder should be the top contender for both titles this season.

Vivod is not quite at the level of Sediva, but not far off. She won silver in the javelin at the ACC’s outdoor meet, and in 2014, earned All-America honors.

Kuklova is a threat to win ACC gold in the hammer throw. She finished second a year ago at the league’s outdoor meet, and while she missed on qualifying for the NCAA Championships, she goes into this season as a contender for All-America honors.

The two freshmen, Thor and Wennberg, are two talented hammer throwers from Sweden. Thor ranked as one of the top 15 junior throwers in the world following the 2015 season.

Provided they stay healthy and continue to progress, this group alone could amass enough points to propel the Hokies into contender status for the ACC title during the outdoor season.

Throws coach Greg Jack’s take

“We are looking nice and loaded for the women’s team. We have a nice little combination of experience and youth, and this is going to be one pretty cool year. I am excited to see how it all plays out.”

MEN’S JUMPS

Returners

Mackenzie Muldoon, Ryan Shepard, Will Kendall, James Carver

Newcomer

James Holt

Overview

The Hokies are rebuilding in the jumps, as they lost both Manuel Ziegler and David Prince off last season’s squad. So unproven guys will be looking to add to a very good men’s team.

Muldoon appears to be the one best ready to help. Early in his career, he competed mostly in the long and high jumps, but last year, he finished seventh in the decathlon at the ACC Outdoor Championships. Tech’s staff feels that he could be an upper-level decathlete this season.

Carver returns after a season in which he competed at the ACC Indoor Championships last February, coming in 13th in the high jump. Shepard and Kendall also compete in the high jump and will be looking to help the Hokies in that event, though neither competed at an ACC championship meet last season.

Freshman James Holt enters the picture this season as a competitor in the long jump. He twice won medals in the long jump at the Pennsylvania indoor state meet during his prep career.

Jumps coach Paul Zalewski’s take

“I’m looking for Mackenzie Muldoon to do some things this year. He had a great season last year, and he had a really good fall. He is way ahead of where he was at this point last year. James Carver had a great fall as well. He is coming off a solid freshman season, so I am looking for him to step up. Again, he is another one that is well ahead of where he was at this point last year.

“We had a great fall. The team has done really well. I am excited about where we are at this point. Most of the kids that have come back are already ahead of where they were at this point last year, so that is exciting for me.”

WOMEN’S JUMPS

Returners

Emily Miller, Kacia Vines

Newcomer

Eszter Bajnok

Overview

The women’s team lacked depth in the jumps last season. Vines competed in the long jump several times during the outdoor season, but competed in the 400-meter dash at both ACC meets and probably serves as a better fit in that event than in the jumps.

Miller competed in the high jump on a couple of occasions during the outdoor season, winning the event at the Highlander Invitational and coming in fifth at the Hurricane Invitational. She may be more of a multi-event specialist, though, with the potential to score points in the pentathlon and heptathlon.

The one to keep an eye on in this small group is Bajnok, who was the Hungarian Junior Female Athlete of the Year in 2016. She placed seventh in the long jump at the IAAF World U-20 Championships in July and holds the Hungarian junior record in both the long and triple jumps. She could be a contender for a medal at both ACC meets this season.

Jumps coach Paul Zalewski’s take

“Eszter had a phenomenal high school career with a lot of great honors and accomplishments for her home country, so we are really looking forward to her having a huge impact on the women’s side. The talent that I have seen out of her and what she has been able to accomplish up until this point is unbelievable, but we also have to take what she has done and add in some of the things that we do here. That might be a little different than what she is used to. I think the sky is the limit for her. There is a lot of upside still.”

MEN’S SPRINTS/HURDLES

Returners

Jared Bane, Samuel Denmark, Corey Hackett-Greene, Dante Price, Austin Kolko, Jack Strollo, Alexander Merritt, Aaron Simpson, Darius Watkins

Newcomers

Greg Chiles, Matthew Baker, Brandon Thomas, Michael Davenport

Overview

Sprints and hurdles coach Tim Vaught continues the process of rebuilding the sprints/hurdles areas on both the men’s and women’s teams. On the men’s side, he returns a talented sprinter in Watkins, who scored points at the ACC outdoor meet this past season by finishing seventh in the 200 and serving as part of the 4x100-meter relay team that was seventh. He should score points at both ACC meets this season.

Vaught hopes two transfers – Chiles and Hackett-Greene – have major impacts this season. Chiles competed in the 400 and 400-meter hurdles at South Carolina, and he participated in two SEC championships meets, giving the Hokies big-time experience. Hackett-Greene transferred to Tech from Coastal Carolina in 2015 and competed for the Hokies during the indoor season last winter (he took a redshirt year during the outdoor campaign). He won the 400 at the Big South meet as a freshman.

There are a lot of pieces in this group. Hopefully, several emerge to add to what appears to be an already strong men’s team.

Sprints/hurdles coach Tim Vaught’s take

“The men’s team (overall) won the conference championship last year. They are on a high, and they want to keep going. My group is a small group, and we added more sprinters this year. It has given us extra motivation to be able to go back to the conference meet and really have a big impact on the conference championship this year.”

WOMEN’S SPRINTS/HURDLES

Returners

Courtney Blanden, Jada Gundran, Ama-Selina Tchume, Shanel Burr, Nora McKiver, Kacia Vines

Newcomers

Arlicia Bush, Amanda Thomas, Kyra Parker

Overview

McKiver anchors an experienced group of sprinters who hope to produce on the ACC stage. The senior enjoyed her best indoor season in 2016 when she earned All-ACC honors in the 200 and the 400. Unfortunately, an injury set her back, and she missed the outdoor season, but the Hokies are expecting big things this year.

Blanden ran a personal best in the 400 at the ACC outdoor meet, and she qualified for the 200 at the NCAA East Regional. Burr gained ACC experience last season, competing in the 60- and 100-meter hurdles at the league’s indoor and outdoor meets, respectively. Gundran ran a personal best in the 400-meter hurdles at the ACC’s outdoor meet, while Bush was a three-time state champion in high school and could be a factor in the 400 early in her career.

There is a lot of potential in this group. Continued progression could result in many of them scoring many points for the women’s team at ACC meets this year – ones they’ll need to complete for a league title.

Sprints/hurdles coach Tim Vaught’s take

“Nora is like Darius – she is one of the leaders. Courtney is definitely making strides and was the only sprinter who made outdoor regionals last year. She is a hard worker, and she wants to be No. 1.

“We are going to make an impact – on both sides. Last year was last year. I always tell them that last year is in the past. We have nothing to do about that now, but we have everything to do with the future. They have to stay focus and keep working hard, and great things are going to come out of this year.”

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