Three runners punch tickets to Big East Championships

Personal record? Check. Big East Indoor Championship qualifying time? Check. Top-10 performance in the 5,000-meter race in school history? Check.

That was the weekend checklist for three Marquette track and field athletes at the Meyo Invitational in Notre Dame, Ind.

Juniors Nick Szczech and Brice Cleland and sophomore Blake Johnson had two meets left to qualify for the Big East Indoor Championships on Feb. 22 — the highlight of the indoor season — although Johnson had already qualified for the Big East in the mile.

The qualifying time for the Big East in that event is 14:47.14.

Szcech led the way for the three runners coming in ninth (14:25.1), followed by Johnson in 12th (14:26.75) and Cleland in 23rd (14:46.28). With their performances, all three runners made Marquette’s top 10 all time list in the 5,000-meters. Szczech now sits second, Johnson third and Cleland ninth.

The fastest 5,000-meter race by a Marquette male athlete in the indoor season was by Keith Hanson in 1985. He ran it in 13:52.14. Hanson was an All-American in track & field and cross country and was a NCAA champion in the 10,000-meter race outdoors.

Johnson said it’s a great feeling to be able to share an achievement like this with his teammates.

“It shows a lot about our team,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of depth now, with all of our individual achievements which are building up as a whole.”

In his first 5,000-meter race of his indoor career, Johnson credited all the work he put in since the summer for his performance. He said he is comfortable running anything between an 800 and a 5,000-meter race.

Szczech said it was his most complete performance of his career.

“It’s the first time I’ve actually put a full race together — the whole mental and physical aspect of running,” Szczech said. “Sometimes I’m physically OK, but mentally, I fall apart. This is the first time I kept everything together.”

He also emphasized the importance of Johnson in his performance.

“Blake and I work well together,” Szczech said. “Just having him there — we were pushing each other which really helped.”

Szczech said he didn’t realize he was running the race of his life until the final lap of the race.

“Notre Dame’s track is 320 meters, so at any point during the race you don’t know exactly where you’re at,” Szczech said. “A typical indoor track is 200 meters and outdoors is 400. Entering the last lap I looked at the clock and saw the time.”

Pleased with his performance, Szczech said he still realizes getting to the Big East Championships was only the first step.

“I really don’t look at performances too much. I like to look at seasons as a whole,” Szczech said. “I’d say the performance is great, but until the season’s over I won’t know the whole picture. If you get caught up in individual performances that can sometimes lead to disappointments, especially because the most important meet of the year is the Big East meet and that’s still to come.”

As impressive as the three performances were, coach Bert Rogers said Hanson’s 13:52.14 mark will be tough to beat. He’s not certain if any of the three men can break it but said all three have room for growth.

And just in time for the Big East Championships.