Emery to make fifth appearance while three others debut
BROOKINGS, S.D. — For the 21st consecutive season, the first weekend in March will find the Goshen College track and field programs cheering on Maple Leaf athletes at the NAIA national meet.
Junior Siana Emery looks to build on last season’s All-American finish while sophomore Suzette Rodriguez and freshmen Hayley Bickford and Simon Graber Miller make their debuts on the biggest stage in NAIA indoor track. The three-day competition begins Thursday at the Sanford Jackrabbit Athletic Complex in Brookings, South Dakota.
All 42 events will be streamed live on the NAIA Network presented by Stretch Internet at NAIANetwork.com; live results will also be available.
While Goshen has appeared at each of the last 40 national meets, this weekend marks the first time since 2011 that Maple Leaf purple will show up in all three disciplines: track, jumps and throws.
“That versatility changes how we look into the logistics of a national meet,” said fifth-year head coach Rustin Nyce. “When you add multiple events, you need to meet each of those events’ unique needs. Timing of practices, check-in for implements, high jump measurements, and the little things involved in each event are different. The athletes have to be flexible and adapt quickly to a change in routines. Luckily we have outstanding event coaches that help mitigate some of those issues.”
Goshen will start its national quest in one of its most familiar events, the 3,000-meter race walk. Since Tina Peters made the Maple Leafs’ debut in the event with a national title in 2007, this will be the 25th straight meet where GC has sent at least one walker to the track. The 24 previous events have resulted in 39 All-Americans.
“Goshen College benefits from having athletes at a national event,” said Nyce. “The coaches and athletes can network with other colleagues and there are recruiting benefits as well. It is motivating to be among the best NAIA athletes in the country so we have an opportunity to get better and bring that atmosphere back with us. Every time we go, nationals becomes a more tangible dream for other GC athletes looking to make it that far.”
Emery is seeded third and Bickford eighth in the race walk, which leads off Friday’s schedule at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. The top eight athletes in the 12-person race will earn All-American honors; both Maple Leafs are seeded within that range. Judson University’s Anali Cisneros holds the best mark in the nation this season at 13 minutes, 53.80 seconds.
Following that event, Goshen will shift its focus to the field events, where a pair of school record holders will look to extend their own marks and end up on the podium.
The schedule gives Simon Graber Miller the honor of competing first, in the men’s high jump at 3 p.m. Goshen time. The Goshen native is one of 11 athletes tied for 17th in the 32-person field after clearing 6 feet, 7½ inches at the conference meet last month. The eighth seed, representing the final All-American spot, checks in at 6-9, and top seed Jared Rabenberg of Dakota Wesleyan is more than an inch clear of the field at 7-0¼.
Rodriguez comes in as the 15th seed among 27 athletes in the women’s weight throw; the sophomore, also from Goshen, uncorked a 53-foot, 5½-inch heave last month to qualify. Her career best was 10¾ inches beyond Deanna Kronk’s school record from 2008. The eighth seed covered 55-11¾ while 60-6¾ is the best effort in the NAIA this season.
“I am eager to see how our young group handles the pressure,” Nyce explained. “With two first-years, a sophomore and a junior, we have the opportunity to continue to send these individuals back to nationals and for others to join them. The more opportunities you have to compete at a high level the better you learn how to perform. You learn a lot by watching other elite athletes and how they conduct themselves, and they also bring that experience back to practice at Goshen.”
The Maple Leafs enter the meet with a mixture of optimism and trepidation: while Emery is a veteran in her fifth national appearance, none of her teammates have made it this far before.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to compete in a more competitive race with new opponents,” Emery said. “At the Goshen race walk meets, it’s mostly the same people and schools each time. Having different competition and more people around my speed will help push me further. I’m also looking forward to seeing my teammates compete: we’ve all put in so much work and I’m excited to see it all come to fruition.”
“I’m really looking forward to the experience that I’ll get from competing at nationals,” observed Bickford. “This level of competition is not something you can get from regular meets, so I’m excited to race against some top performing athletes. I’m a little nervous going into the meet as well; it’s kind of scary going to a meet like this as a freshman.”
“I’m looking forward to experiencing nationals for the first time,” Graber Miller said. It’s some of the best athletes in the nation in one spot, so watching others compete and competing myself should be really fun. I’m nervous and excited, but I really just want to put everything out there.”
While GC is among the nation’s most regular race-walk participants, the other events represent new forays for the current team. The last Maple Leaf to reach nationals in the high jump was Kyle Mishler, now an assistant coach, in 2014, and the last thrower was Matt Webster in 2011.
“Fans who tune in Friday should watch to see Suzette strive to make finals in her first nationals and Simon compete with a crowded group of jumpers and gain valuable experience,” said Nyce. “With Siana ranked 3rd and Hayley 8th going into Friday’s competition, you can watch for two All-Americans in the same event. Siana has an outstanding opportunity to finish top 3 after her All-American season last year. She has been running well and her times have come down as evidence of that. Hayley has looked very strong in our practices leading up to this week. She is composed, confident, and should compete well.”
“Going into the meet, I’d say I’m focused,” Emery said. “I know what my goals are for the race and what I need to do to achieve them. While these big meets always make me nervous, I’m confident in my abilities. Having experience at the national meet helps me to know what to expect, allowing me to focus more on my individual performance.”
“I think people should be watching for the hard work we put into this meet,” Bickford continued. “I feel that we put all that we have in preparation and it really shows in how we compete.”
All told, 983 student-athletes qualified for the national meet, which begins with the women’s pentathlon at 1 p.m. EST on Thursday. The meet will wrap up less than 54 hours later with awards ceremonies at 6:30 Saturday evening. The field includes 152 men’s teams and 161 women’s teams.