Northridge, Calif. - UC Santa Barbara Track and Field would recognize a new conference champion into their record books with JR Hope Bender taking home the individual title in the heptathlon this past weekend at the Big West Multi-Event Championships. With temperatures constantly in the high-80s/low-90s throughout the duration of the two day competition, a steadfast Hope would take an early lead after the first day and never relinquish it, holding onto first position until the bitter end with a score of 5561 points. FR Sam Pica and JR Aaron Cheek would contribute their first ever Big West Conference points to the program by placing seventh and eighth in the decathlon respectively, rallying hard on the second day to just sneak by their closest competitors in the closing stages of the event.
Hope would make her intentions clear starting off with one of her signature events in the 100m hurdles. She would rocket through the barriers to post up a time of 13.70 seconds, taking the early lead with a whopping 1021 points. From then on out it would be a matter of maintaining and fending off anyone that would dare threaten her quest for the individual title.
That threat would come from the likes of UC Davis' Erin Beattie, who would not let the Gaucho take the win without a fight. After an impressive showing in the hurdles from Bender, Beattie would respond right back with a huge 1.79m (5' 10 ½") clearance in the high jump, taking first position right back from Bender. Hope would immediately retort with two back to back victories in the shot put (12.04m) and the 200m (24.15) to regain the lead at the end of day one, setting a first day personal best in the process.
A 5.75m (18' 10 ⅓") jump from Beattie would still keep Hope on notice, but with a solid throw in the javelin and a poised clocking in the 800m, the lady Gaucho would seal the deal on day two to take home the title, holding off the Aggie 5561 points to 5458. In total, Bender and Beattie would win 6 out of the 7 events in the heptathlon, a true testament to their tenacity and grit in the competition. Hope now joins 2012 alum and Olympian Barbara Nwaba as the second UCSB athlete to win a Big West Conference title in the heptathlon, her score of 5561 registering at the fifth-highest in meet history for the Big West Multis.
"Hope Bender is proving over and over again that she can consistently perform at the elite level," remarked Assistant Coach Gray Horn. "I held her back a little bit on day 2 with the goal of keeping her healthy. The idea of taking only one throw in the javelin and not the 800m at full effort did not sit comfortably with her, but she trusts the big picture, and we're ready for a big performance from her the next weekend in the open events."
Going into the meet, Sam Pica and Aaron Cheek were seeded to take seventh and eighth and they executed their plans down to a T, hovering close to those positions throughout the competition and securing their points in the final events. SR Jeff Lam was also in attendance throughout the ten event bout, posting as high as fifth in the scoring going into the last three events, but he would unfortunately have to retire during the pole vault due to an achilles problem. It was a brave effort by the senior regardless, toughing it out until he could no longer continue like a true competitor.
Pica would start off strong with an 11.11 clocking in the 100m followed by a 6.79m (22' 3 ½") mark in the long jump, putting him into the top half of the competition early on. The young freshman would fall back a bit after the shot put and the high jump, but would let everyone know his desire to score was not wavering by throwing down the fastest time of the day with a 48.70 in the 400m to slot him back into eighth place at the end of the first day with 3624 points. Cheek would start things off a bit on the lower end with 3205 points in 13th place, but he would completely change the narrative of his competition once day two started to roll around.
Pica and Cheek would maintain their positions in the 110m hurdles, both clocking around 15-mid, but it was then that Cheek would begin his upswing to catch up to the freshman. Cheek would maintain his position through the discus, and with a stroke of luck on a few no heights in the pole vault, he'd slip all the way into tenth going into the javelin. Once there he'd launch a 52.28m (171' 6") throw, his best throw of the year overall, to take fifth in that event and slot himself into ninth in the total scoring.
Last but not least would be the 1500m. With one Long Beach athlete standing in the way of Pica and Cheek's opportunities to both be in scoring position, they would need to best their nearest scoring competitor by at least 30 seconds, and that is exactly what they would do. Shadowing eventual second place finisher Thomas Grossman of UC Davis, the two Gauchos would be hip to hip all the way through the first two laps. Going into the bell, Cheek would finally take the initiative and take over the lead with Pica right on his heels. The two would push each other all the way to the finish with Pica edging Cheek out 4:30.52 to 4:31.46, poetically taking the first two spots to secure their overall seventh and eighth place positions. Both would finish the competition with personal best scorings, Cheek with 6392 points and Pica with 6528. Pica's score of 6528 would be just enough for the UCSB all-time list in the decathlon at No. 10 all-time.
"I'm very proud of Sam and Aaron for their clutch performance in the 1500m to secure 3 team points for us," said Gray. "I also want to recognize our group leader, SR Jeff Lam. He was not able to finish his last ever Big West Decathlon due to injury, but his leadership and hard work ethic brought this group a long way, and we're lucky to have him."
With the Multi-Event portion of the competition over, the Gauchos will be back at Northridge next Friday for the main program of the Big West Conference Track and Field Championships.