Rich tradition: Indiana State men’s track seniors going for 7 of 8 MVC titles this weekend

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Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 11:35 pm

In almost any sport, going 6 for 7 is a good thing.

Really good.

After all, that’s an .857 average for a hitter in baseball or softball. Or it’s an .857 winning percentage for a team.

If your favorite pro or college team boasted that high of a percentage, most likely you’d be jumping for joy.

If the Indiana Pacers were to win six of their next seven NBA playoff games, how happy (and surprised) would their fans be? If the Chicago Cubs were to win six of seven, their diehard supporters would be pinching themselves to make sure they weren’t dreaming.

Indiana State’s baseball squad, for example, entered last weekend’s home series with Missouri State having won six of its previous seven games. Then the Sycamores won three more to extend their hot streak to nine of their last 10.

There’s another ISU team which stands 6 for 7 in a specific competition, spanning the past four seasons, and this accomplishment is extremely important to its athletes.

The team is men’s track and field and its accomplishment is winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship in six of its last seven tries, counting indoor and outdoor meets.

They’ll be trying to make it 7 for 8 during the MVC outdoor championships this weekend on Southern Illinois’ campus at Carbondale, Ill. Events will start Friday and conclude Sunday.

If successful, for those of you without a calculator handy, their winning percentage would increase to .875.

A productive group of seniors

Although dozens of athletes deserve partial credit for this four-year reign of MVC dominance, Indiana State men’s coach John McNichols recently singled out his seniors for their roles in capturing so many titles.

They include 2012 Olympic hurdler Greggmar Swift, 400-meter runner and hurdler Max Tuttle, 200 and 400 specialist Kevin Piraino, weight-thrower Chris Fields, long-distance runner Albaro Escalera (also part of ISU men’s cross country teams that won three MVC crowns), distance runner and former Shakamak High School standout Drew Gambill, 400 runner and hurdler Ray Skamay, sprinter Keith Housley and decathlete/heptathlete Robert Webb.

“Their four years have been very productive,” McNichols emphasized to the Tribune-Star. “They had other good athletes with them. It wasn’t all just this class. But this class has led the team in scoring in every one of our conference meets, even as freshmen [in 2011].”

It should be noted that Webb used up his NCAA eligibility in the 2014 indoor season, so he won’t be competing this weekend. Also, Housley went to Vincennes University for two years, so he’s only been at ISU the last two seasons, and Escalara redshirted the entire 2013 track season.

But the bulk of ISU’s track seniors will leave the program having been part of all eight indoor and outdoor teams. Most entered the program in the fall of 2010.

“Coach McNichols is known as the hurdle guru and I wanted to keep getting better in the hurdles,” recalled Tuttle, the 2010 IHSAA boys 300 hurdles state champion from Bloomington North and an exercise science major at ISU. “So that’s why I came to Indiana State.”

“I really wanted to do Division I track in college and Indiana State allowed me to do that,” Piraino explained. “The program was solid before I came here. … Coming in, I didn’t really know how good our teams were going to be.”

“We knew we had some good kids coming in,” McNichols reflected. “Overall, they’ve done a pretty good job. They’ve been pretty consistent. They’ve been a lot of fun. They’re good-quality athletes and people.”

Building on a strong tradition

McNichols, who came to Indiana State in 1983, had enjoyed success prior to the arrival of this senior class. During his time here, there have been nine outdoor track, three indoor track and eight cross country titles in MVC men’s championship meets.

That’s a total of 20 for the program.

McNichols’ first outdoor conference championship occurred in 1988. That team was led by eventual NCAA champion 110-meter hurdler Chris Lancaster.

“We had never won an [MVC] indoor title until these guys [current seniors] did as freshmen [in 2011],” the veteran coach mentioned, adding that the only season these athletes didn’t win an MVC team championship was indoors 2012 when they were sophomores.

Despite that one second-place finish, there’s no lack of fond memories from the past four years.

“I’m happy that I’ve been so successful and my team has been so successful, but I really wish that I had more time here,” said Piraino, a Wheaton, Ill., resident who went through commencement ceremonies two Saturdays ago to receive a degree in earth and environmental sciences.

“It’s been a great program. I really wish I had an extra year. I feel like this year I’m hitting my prime, hitting the times that I’ve been chasing the last four years. But I guess it’s time to move on.”

Looking toward the future

Piraino, who plans to attend graduate school at Michigan State in the fall, would like one more MVC track championship to claim before he leaves Terre Haute. But with several of his teammates battling soreness and minor injuries, he knows No. 7 for this group of seniors won’t come easily.

Then again, none of the previous six came easily either.

“That’s kind of the story every year,” he noted. “We’ve had nagging injuries, but at the end we usually seem to get the job done.

“I think our depth and our team camaraderie has been there every year. I know some teams have really good individuals … but we’ve been almost a dynasty of sorts these last couple years.”

Piraino said his individual goal for this weekend is “to place in the top two or three in each of the events I’m going to compete in,” which includes the 400, 1,600 relay and possibly the 200.

Meanwhile, Tuttle figures Wichita State will be the Sycamores’ toughest opponent team-wise.

“We respect all of them, but we know what we can do,” he insisted. “We believe we can come out with the seventh [MVC] championship and that’s all that matters.

“We’re all as tight-knit as it comes. I think that’s led to a lot of our success. We always knew each person would do his job, so we want to make sure we do our jobs as well.”

Tuttle has an internship to finish this summer before he receives his degree, but he realizes his track career will be ending soon and he admits that he’ll miss it.

“It’s been my life for the last four years,” Tuttle said. “Track has been who I am. It’s going to be rough not being around this environment anymore. It’s going to take some adjusting. But I’m hoping to finish it with the best memory I can — by doing well at the nationals in Eugene.”

To be specific, he’s referring to the NCAA outdoor championships June 11-14 at Eugene, Ore.



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