CORVALLIS - It won't make ESPN's SportsCenter, but Saturday was a historic day for track and field at Oregon State University. Eight years after women's track and field was reinstated at OSU, Head Coach Kelly Sullivan and his team hosted a three-team meet at the sparkling new Whyte Track & Field Center on the OSU campus before a crowd of several hundred people. Willamette University and the University of Portland competed against the Beavers in what was a low-key but incredibly significant meet.
|Willamette University and the University of Portland comptete with OSU in Corvallis
The last home meet for the Oregon State team, then composed of both men and women, was the Beaver Twilight on May 26, 1988. A few days after that meet, a handful of Oregon State athletes competed in the NCAA National Championships, held in Eugene from June 1-4.
Knowing this would be the final competition for OSU in track and field, as it had already been announced that the program would be discontinued, the Beavers' Karl Van Calcar won the 3000 meter steeplechase final at that meet, putting a sad exclamation on the swan song for the sport at Oregon State.
16 years later, in 2004, Oregon State hired Kelly Sullivan, Willamette's former head coach, to begin the process of bringing the sport back. The rebirth was to happen in stages, and would start with Sullivan recruiting a group of female distance runners who would compete in track and cross country. A new track facility would not be built until funds for it had been raised. The men's team also would not be added until funds had been raised to endow the sport.
|Michaela Freeby of Willamette
It hasn't been a quick or easy task for Sullivan, though he is the perfect man for the job, which involves fundraising, a lot of outreach to alums and supporters, as well as all the recruiting, coaching and managing the program. Sullivan, who grew up on the northern Oregon coast and coached at Clackamas CC and Auburn University as well as Willamette, has to be one of the nicest and most genuine people on the planet. He also has a proven record as a successful coach.
After the meet on Saturday, which ironically was also Sullivan's birthday, he talked about the struggle of the past eight years, and said he had been "naive" about how hard it would be to start from scratch in bringing the sport back at OSU. When he started there was no facility, no other coaches, and not a lot to offer recruits other than an opportunity.
"I never experienced anything like coaching a team without a facility," Sullivan said.
"I've been coaching 25 years and have had a lot of success and have been around a lot of successful people. I got here and it was like I had no idea what it was like without a facility. Now, for the first time since I have been here we've been able to train like we want to train at the time we need to train. Instead of trying to get on Linus Pauling's track for an hour and a half or Corvallis High School's track for an hour and a half. It was not enabling us to do the things we needed to do to be successful. But now I know that these women are able to do those things . . . and that makes me feel really happy."
Sullivan's team is on board with the direction of the program and they are beginning to show that they can be a factor in the Pac-12 and nationally.
Michelle Turney, a freshman jumper from Crescent Valley High School, is one of the recruits who have benefitted tremendously from the new facility. On Saturday, Turney went 39' 1/4" in the triple jump, breaking her own school record in the event, which she set last weekend at the Oregon Preview. Her early-season performances will undoubtedly get some attention around the conference, and she said she is excited for the future of track and field at OSU.
"I knew it was a great school, and it was an opportunity for me to stay close to home . . . I'm just hoping (the program) keeps improving at the same rate as it going. It is going to be great once we get a men's team back because it will make us complete."
Emily Weber, a South Salem High School graduate, is another freshman turning some heads. Weber set a four-second PR in the 1500 meters at the Oregon Preview last weekend, then improved on that time by another three seconds on Saturday. She took second in the 1500 in 4:36.24.
"It's really exciting to be a part of the first track meet in 25 years here," Weber said. "It's going really well and I just love my team and coaches. I definitely think we can (be competitive in the Pac-12). We're getting two really good recruits next year and our team is just developing a lot."
Silverton High grad Morgan Anderson, who didn't compete on Saturday due to a recent illness, agreed wholeheartedly about the direction of the program and the significance of Saturday's meet.
"It's amazing coming into a program where you have this wonderful new facility. All the freshman definitely feel spoiled. We've never had to share a track with somebody else or experience not having a facility . . . This (meet) is so big, so important. It's a great way to start our career. We have this new track and we get to keep building on this new legacy."
While the Whyte Track & Field Center still needs a scoreboard, permanent spectator seating, a press box, a hammer area, and other amenities, the two home meets this season should spur the fundraising effort, which continues. $7.5 million is the total needed for Phase II, which will complete the facility but not the endowment needed to bring back the men's team.
But, for the moment, OSU track fans are savoring how far Sullivan has brought the program.
Berny Wagner, one of OSU's last coaches during the program's glory years, was on hand at the meet, along with many former athletes. The former coach of Dick Fosbury, who won an Olympic gold medal and revolutionized the high jump event, was in a wheelchair watching the high jump. He summed up the day and the new track facility, saying simply, "It's just beautiful."