With only 10 total team points after the first day of the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field National Championship, senior Thurgood Dennis despite being nervous about his upcoming individual performances, said the nerves for his teammates were dormant.
Instead, he was filled with confidence that he and his fellow Blugolds were ready to put their months of dedication on the line and capture the national championship that has evaded him since he set foot on campus four years ago.
Two individual national championships and 52 points later, Dennis’s confidence was rewarded. The UW-Eau Claire men’s track and field team were national champions for the first time in history.
“I’ve always said there are a couple different peaks you can climb in collegiate track and field. Third is an individual national championship… next is a relay national championship… the highest is that team national title,” Dennis said. “That was unbelievable.”
After reaching the pinnacle of individual achievement on the track, Dennis finally experienced what he considers the summit of collegiate athletics.
Dennis said the team’s goal was to have both the men’s and women’s teams stand on the podium. After two days of competition the women joined the men on stage, finishing fourth respectively.
When the celebration in Winston, North Carolina came to an end and all the photographs were taken, the two teams boarded a plane and then a bus en route for McPhee Physical Education Center.
Waiting for them at McPhee were several Blugold sports teams including the football, volleyball and basketball teams.
As the athletes spent time greeting and congratulating the newly crowned champions, head coach Chip Schneider interrupted to thank the people of Eau Claire for their continued support.
It was a special moment for Eau Claire sports, one that would not have been possible without the individual accomplishments of multiple Blugold sprinters, throwers and jumpers.
Dennis said the throwers stepped up in a big way, as senior Roger Steen won his first individual championship with a throw of 18.81 meters. Junior teammate Alex Mess joined Steen on the podium with a third place finish.
“That was a gutsy performance by both the throwers,” Dennis said. “And that speaks a lot to our coach Paul Conlin and how he had them prepared and to Roger for how he leads that group.”
Senior Brandon Zarnoth captured his first heptathlon national title scoring 5,425 points. Zarnoth has come close to winning the heptathlon national championship in the past but fell short. Dennis said seeing his teammate finally capture the title eased the pain of him placing second in the 60-meter dash.
Dennis fell two-hundredths of a second short of winning his third straight national championship in the event, and despite running what looked like good times all year, Dennis has not been at full health all season, a large reason why he fell just short.
With the indoor season being bookended with a national title, the track and field teams now look to the outdoor season. Dennis said the expectations are high, but he has found his own motivation as he prepares to enter his final track and field season.
“I want to prove that I’m not feeling old and that I am over my injury, and I can get back to where I was,” Dennis said. “As a team, I think we want to make this season a little less suspenseful in certain places.”