June 6, 2006
Sacramento will heat up next week as the nation's best compete at Hornet Stadium on the campus of Cal State Sacramento for the NCAA Div. I National Track & Field Championships. Beginning Wednesday, June 7th and ending on Saturday, June 10th, four days of speed, power and endurance will be showcased as the student-athletes vie for the coveted All-American awards.
The Gauchos will be sending a record three women distance runners competing in three different events. Megan Lewis (Jr.) in the 5,000m, Bethany Nickless (So.) in the 3,000m Steeplechase and Stephanie Rothstein (Jr.) in the 10,000m will all be making their first Nationals appearance.
Beginning with Rothstein, the red-shirt junior obliterated the Big West Conference and UCSB 10,000m records back on March 31st at the Stanford Invitational. Her 33:27.85, placed her on the national scene ranked 10th in the NCAA and 10th American at the time. The marked qualified Rothstein automatically for NCAA's as well as the USA Championships near the end of June. She is still currently ranked as the 14th American for 2006 at the distance and just inside the top 100 worldwide at 94th; Rothstein will enter the NCAA 10k final ranked 10th.
Since that race however, her road to the Championships has not been easy. Low iron levels kept her from racing her best in the middle of the season, but she began to come around at the Conference Championships where she won both the 10,000m and 5,000m titles. A week later she was crowned the Big West Track Athlete of the Year and will enter NCAA's with a boost of confidence. Twenty-seven athletes will toe the line Thursday under the lights as they get after the top eight All-American positions.
The next highest ranked Gaucho in her respective event, Nickless goes into the Steeplechase ranked 12th in a field of twenty-seven after a phenomenal race less than a week ago. Running well throughout the season, Nickless lowered her UCSB school record by ten seconds and ran away with the Big West Conference Championship in the steeple only to back it up with a runner up finish in the 5,000m. Going in ranked 9th into the NCAA West Regional Championship Steeplechase final she would need to lower her time by seven more seconds or grab one of the five automatic qualifying spots.
With the altitude against her at BYU, which had already destroyed the hopes of some in Provo, Nickless went in and competed as if she was at sea level. Racing to a runner-up finish at the Regional Championships, she left nothing to chance qualifying automatically to NCAA's while dropping her time by thirteen seconds to 10:18.89. Nickless is also unofficially ranked 14th in the U.S. and unofficially in the top seventy athletes at the distance in the world. She will line up in the semi-finals on Wednesday evening with the top five women in each heat qualifying automatically along with the next four best marks.
Lewis on the other hand left a few things up to chance after an 8th place finish in the thin air of Provo, UT to qualify for the National Championships at 5,000m. The West Region at 5k has notoriously gone out a bit slow, leaving it up to the athletes to finish in the top five or hoping a faster time earlier in the year would get them an at-large spot; of course this year, the altitude was one more factor the women had to overcome. Last year, Lewis finished 6th place at Regionals and without a faster time was one of the first athletes to not qualify. This year, Lewis raced tough at the Oregon Invitational to come away with a win on the famous Hayward Field track and a new personal best of 16:28.28, beating out West Region rival Ashlee Vincent of Portland.
After taking 8th place at the Regional Championships last weekend, Lewis again found herself waiting to see if an at-large berth to NCAA's was in her future. To make it a bit more complicated her personal best 5k mark achieved in Oregon, ranked 9th on the national at-large list. With the NCAA traditionally taking seven at-larges in the 5,000m, Lewis and the Gauchos would have to see if anybody qualified in the 5k and another event at nationals, would choose the other. Luckily, two key athletes did, moving her to 7th on the at-large list and earning the last at-large spot in the field for the National Championships. She will step up to the line in the prelims on Wednesday night ranked 22nd, with the top six from each heat qualifying automatically into finals along with the next best four marks from the semi-finals.