When the U of A track and field team takes to the field on Thursday afternoon as hosts of this year’s national championships, they’ll enter the tournament a very different group from previous seasons.
The summer of 2012 brought much change for the U of A’s track team. Wes Moerman was brought in as associate director of athletic programming, taking over the U of A’s track team. Since then, the team has seen major changes made to their roster, leaving them with a smaller team than in previous seasons.
“There were people who didn’t want to be there that were just doing it to say they were on the track team for something to put on their résumé,” fifth-year Pandas athlete and team captain Kathryn McCaffrey said. “They were kind of weaned out, and at first it was off-putting, but it ended up working. I loved it in comparison because finally we got some respect around campus, that we aren’t just a team that anyone can join.”
The change has led to a higher calibre of performance expected from the U of A’s athletes, but hasn’t improved the team’s overall performance at meets this season: the Pandas’ fourth-place finish and the Bears’ seventh-place finish at the CanWest championships were each one spot lower than the year before, and their expectations for nationals aren’t high. But the team’s focus has changed from one that centres on the team’s point totals as a whole at track meets to letting the players take a more individual focus on their own events.
“Last year, we were about points. I competed in five different events in two days, and you just put yourself out there for the team because it was for the points,” second-year Panda Leah Walkeden said. “This year it was more about doing as best as you can in your events ... We’ll still kill it in our own events, but there will be so many of us that are good that the points will come and we’ll get back up there in the country.”
“This year is definitely more of a rebuilding phase,” fourth-year Pandas athlete Courtney Wilkes said. “That’s the impression I’ve gotten ... The strategy this year is focusing more on rebuilding the program rather than throwing people into a whole bunch of events. Later on we’ll have a solid foundation to branch out a little bit.”
This season, the top favourites to win come mostly from Ontario schools such as the University of Guelph, Windsor and Western University, with the Western men and Windsor women looking to repeat as national champions. Hosting these teams at their own U of A facilities will show the Bears and Pandas what they need to do to compete on their opponents’ level and return to the hunt for a CIS championship.
“The advantage for us as a team and as a program is just to see where the rest of the schools are at in this country on a national level, and we see that right in our backyard and we see what we need to be striving and working toward,” Moerman said.
“At the end of the day, the value is really the work you put in before (nationals), and I think that the real benefit is the ability to use the facility the way we’ve been able to use it this year to help progress the athletes.”
The U of A Pavilion stands as one of the best facilities many of the Bears and Pandas athletes have competed in, despite travelling to different parts of Canada and even south of the border to Seattle this season. The Butterdome will invite schools from across CIS to compete in one of the best facilities in the country.
“I think that we’ll do well because of the adrenaline and the comfort of being at home, but all of us knows everything about our track,” McCaffrey said.
“(Pandas weight thrower Ciera Heksha-Wolfe) knows exactly what the throw circle is going to like, these guys know exactly what the blocks and finish line are going to look like, I know exactly what the hurdles look like and where the spacings are.
“We know the most about this track and we know the ins and outs. I think we’re going to look pretty good.”