If you see Cliff Rovelto smiling in Waco, Texas, this weekend, it’s for good reason.
The Kansas State track and field coach believes his Wildcats could make the Big 12 Outdoor Track and Field Championships an exciting race to the finish.
K-State’s men’s team was fourth a year ago, while the women finished eighth.
With added depth now, Rovelto said the men have a chance for a top-three finish.
“From the men’s side Texas is, on paper, pretty much the overwhelming favorite,” Rovelto said. “But I think that ourselves, Texas Tech and Oklahoma, again at least on paper, look to be the teams that will battle out for second.”
The Longhorn men currently sit at No. 8 in the national rankings, while the only other Big 12 contender joining the Longhorns in the Top 25 is No. 18 Texas Tech. K-State dropped from No. 25 to No. 30 just this week.
For the Wildcats, looking to the world’s No. 1 high jumper Erik Kynard for a solid performance is nothing out of the ordinary. The senior is way out front in the Big 12 this outdoor season, obviously, after posting the top jump (7-feet-8) in the world so far this year in April.
If Kynard makes another first-place jump this weekend, he will become the first male to win three Big 12 outdoor championships in the high jump.
Though an accomplishment, Kynard seems focused on much more than just the Big 12.
“It doesn’t mean anything honestly,” the Olympic silver medalist said. “I’ve won a lot of things three times in a row, sometimes four times in a row. So, I don’t think it’s that significant at all.
“When you’re a winner and a competitor and you expect to win and you work hard to prepare yourself for a victory, things like that are of little significance. I guess it’s big for everyone else, but it’s not big for me.”
Some new faces are impacting the men’s team in significant ways this outdoor season. Rovelto said freshman Ifeanyichukwu Otuonye has been a pleasant surprise. He’s looking forward to seeing the competition Otuonye will bring to Waco this weekend.
“There’s a couple of guys that have really improved tremendously,” Rovelto said. “One is Otuonye, he’s been here all year, but if you look him in the long jump and in terms of running in the relays, we knew he would be a guy that was a candidate to do those things and we felt like he’d be pretty good.
“But he’s been even better than we’ve thought.”
Including scoring in the long jump, Otuonye leads the 4x400 and anchors K-State’s 4x100. According to Rovelto, those are “critical spots for a true freshman to handle.”
With the men’s team leading the Big 12 in the high jump, the 200 meters (junior Carlos Rodriguez), and the pole vault (junior Kyle Wait), Kynard has confidence that his team can do big things if everyone shows up ready to compete.
“We’ve got a fairly young team,” Kynard said. “So, hopefully everybody has let out their jitters from indoors, are comfortable performing and everything and everybody just goes out there and doesn’t try and reinvent the wheel — just does their job, do what they came out there to do, and what they’ve been trained to do.
“Then we’ll be fine.”
For the K-State Women, Rovelto said while the roster is also young, and a few of the highest scorers are out this weekend with injuries, he still expects the team to place higher than last year’s Big 12 meet.
On the women’s side of the Big 12, Kansas is ranked nationally at No. 2, joined in the Top 25 by No. 10 Texas, No. 16 Iowa State, No. 17 Texas Tech, No. 21 Baylor and No. 23 Oklahoma.
Despite the stiff competition, Rovelto said placing fifth or sixth is his goal.
“There are definitely people who are scorers that are out right now and that would have made a difference — it would have been enough to put us up in the top four or so,” Rovelto said. “But we’re really young, most of the people that are going to score points are going to be underclassmen and I think that they, individually, if you go down the list, the majority of them performing are doing all they’re capable of doing.”
The Wildcats’ strength is found in the heptathlon, with strong scoring possibilities from junior Erica Twiss, sophomore Sarah Kolmer, sophomore Joslyn Barnes, senior Richelle Farley and junior Merryl Mbeng.
“I think we have a good chance to do pretty well,” Twiss said. “We’ve got a lot of depth in a lot of our events. In the multi, we’ve got five girls who could potentially score, and we have a lot of depth in a lot of other events — the relays, both relays —there’s three of us total doing the 400 hurdles. So, I think if everyone performs the way that they can, then we should have a pretty good showing.”
Twiss is looking forward to a busy weekend, as she will compete in both the heptathlon and the 400-meter hurdles.
“Pretty much every meet I’ve done Big 12 wise, I’ve done the multi and then some other events,” Twiss said. “But I’ve never done the 400 hurdles. It’s one of my favorite events, and I haven’t really gotten to do it too much until now, so I’m really excited.”
The Big 12 meet began today with combined events, men’s and women’s hammer throw, and the women’s pole vault and 10,000-meter run. The track meet goes through Sunday.