At Times, D3 Runs Past D1
BC, EMU Find Talent
Posted: January 31, 2013
HARRISONBURG — Eastern Mennonite University junior Dan Nafziger partly credits his school record-breaking time in the 1,000-meter indoor run Saturday to “pure rage.”
“For some reason, I just got spiked like four different times [early in the race],” said Nazfiger, a Harrisonburg High School graduate. “I just got really annoyed with that, and I went.”
Did he ever. He went past several runners who compete at Division I schools — the three spots behind him were filled by athletes from High Point and Radford — in what became a theme for D-III athletes from both EMU and Bridgewater College at the Liberty Open in Lynchburg.
The Royals and Eagles each set four school records, with BC sophomore Luke Sohl having perhaps the most impressive performance. He ran the mile in 4 minutes, 20.48 seconds to finish fourth in the race – first among D-III runners – and break a 31-year-old school record by two-hundredths of a second.
In the men’s 1,000, BC senior Tim Wisniewski ran a 2:33.80, good for fifth and another Eagles record. Nafziger finished right behind him in taking EMU’s record, and also finished ninth behind Sohl in the mile at 4:26.77. BC freshman Nevin Heckman, also an HHS graduate, set a school mark in the 500 (1:08.08, third).
On the women’s side, EMU freshman Hannah Chappel-Dick’s times in the mile (5:12.89, second) and the 3,000 (10:48.48, sixth), and BC senior Morgan Keplinger’s 500 time (1:23.57, third) also set school records.
In every one of those record-breaking races, there were at least a handful of Division I athletes trailing the top finisher from BC and EMU. Clearly, the Eagles and Royals have a few D-I caliber athletes. The question is how?
Coaches at both schools – BC head coach Shane Stevens and distance coach Brian Flynn, and EMU coach Jason Lewkowicz – pointed to a few reasons. For one, track is different from other college sports because there aren’t as many Division-I scholarships available. NCAA regulations allow only 12.6 scholarships for men’s track and field and 18 for women’s. And that’s the maximum; some schools grant fewer scholarships. Athletic scholarships are not allowed at D-III schools.
In addition, with Title IX gender-equity rules influencing how many sports schools can sponsor, track often has gotten the ax from athletic departments. At James Madison, for instance, men’s indoor and outdoor track were among 10 sports eliminated in 2006 to comply with Title IX.
With Division I offering fewer scholarships, small colleges such as BC and EMU have a better chance to nab higher-quality track-and-field athletes.
“There’s that top echelon in Division I that compete at the national level and the Olympics, so they’re a cut above,” Lewkowicz said. “But most Division I schools aren’t giving out a lot of scholarship money for track, and so we can recruit athletes that Radford is recruiting. Maybe not all of them, but a percentage of them.”
Of course, EMU and BC still have to sell their products against those of D-I schools, which can be enticing even without scholarship money. Coaches do that in several ways.
One selling point is giving runners more attention, both during recruiting and after they arrive. The year he got Sohl, Flynn said he “put in more work than 98 percent” of the other recruits in landing the Burke native.
Flynn’s biggest pitch: at BC, Sohl could be the man.
“We’re going to build the program around you,” Flynn said he told Sohl. “We’re going to take you to big meets. The training’s going to be centered around you. Everything’s going to be you, you, you. I just drove it into their head that they’re the man.”
Flynn also believes in late bloomers, another category that Sohl fits. The 20-year-old needed time to adjust to a more rigorous workout routine. Flynn was perhaps more accommodating than a D-I coach might have been to Sohl, who considered going to Virginia Tech.
“The mileage he’s running now is pretty comparable to most D-I programs, but it’s taken us 15 months to get there,” Flynn said. “Whereas you’ve got about five weeks to get there [at a Division I school].”
So how do you find these late bloomers?
Flynn pointed to a few indicators. Sometimes, he said, he’ll see a scrawny high school kid with potential to get stronger. Or he might find someone that hasn’t trained extensively, meaning there’s room to get much faster.
“If you’re looking straight off results, sometimes they’ll have a much better time in one event, and their PRs are skewed, and that’s because they’re not doing many miles [in training],” Flynn said. “If they’re running 20-25 miles a week [in high school], and I have ’em running 50 miles a week, they’re going to improve just because they have to.”
Other recruits decide that they simply don’t want running to consume their college existence as D-I sports tend to do. That’s part of the reason Nazfiger transferred from George Mason to EMU in 2011 (although a back injury also played a part).
“I kind of wanted to get out of the team-is-everything mentality, which I think is a very profitable system and it’s very good as far as success,” Nazfiger said. “…At the same time, as far as branching out and finding identity outside of [track], that’s one of the things I wanted to do also.”
Snagging elite runners like these, Flynn and Lewkowicz say, is a necessary ingredient to having winning track programs. At the national D-3 meet, Flynn said, the top teams will have “at least three” runners of Sohl’s caliber.
EMU’s and BC’s squads aren’t there yet. But setting records and beating D-I competitors is a start.