Randy York’s N-Sider
Welcome to today’s NCAA Track and Field History Lesson, brought to you in part by 13 recent Husker men’s national qualifiers in sprints, hurdles and relays. As speedy student-athletes and the nation’s biggest billboard for 400-meter individual/relay talent, Billy’s Boys have something to prove next week at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore.
“Every guy who qualified is part of the national goal we set for ourselves,” said Cody Rush, a sophomore from Grand Island and two-time first-team NCAA All-American. “We’ve been chewing at the bit for an opportunity to show what we’re really capable of, and we’ve been waiting for this meet long before we qualified for it. When the Big Ten Championship didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, all the guys got together and discussed our goal. We want to score a lot of points at the NCAA meet and open some people’s eyes that Nebraska isn’t just a football school.”
Billy’s Boys, a.k.a. sprinters and hurdlers who were recruited and coached by Billy Maxwell, are on a shared mission. They have their sights set on Eugene and their hearts racing for Maxwell, a former head coach at LSU and now finishing his 19th season as an assistant coach for Gary Pepin, the Hall-of-Famer who churns out conference team championships like he’s a foreman in a manufacturing plant.
Billy’s Boys Want to Redeem Themselves
Pepin and Maxwell have been around long enough to reach the same innate conclusions without a single word of discussion. Latest case in point: If Nebraska’s men had performed in the 400-meter hurdles at the Big Ten Conference Championship like the Huskers did in the NCAA West Regional Qualifier in Arkansas, there would be one more championship in the trophy case.
The irony, of course, is this: Nebraska’s traditional track and field emotional core is winning team championships. The Huskers won more titles than any other school in Big 12 Conference history or Big Eight Conference history…in any sport! At the same time, Nebraska has not fared so well in the NCAA Championships. The Husker men, in fact, have finished in the Top Ten of the NCAA Outdoor Championship only 13 times in school history. But that could change to 14 in 2014 in Eugene. Why? Because Billy’s Boys feel like they owe their event coach a collective and explosive NCAA performance.
“I think we’re among the top five teams in terms of individual qualifiers,” said Rush, pictured above. “We have eight guys who qualified and can run 400 meters with the best in the country. We have four in the 400-meter hurdles and four more in the 4x400-meter relay. Our depth is just unreal. We’re all ready to get it done together. We all want to do it for Billy. He tries to put on a tough personality, but deep down, he cares about every single one of us. He’s tough in practice, so you have to take him seriously. But we all know he’s always looking out for you and doing what’s best for you. Billy treats all of us like we’re one of his own."
Ukaoma: Performing for Billy is ‘Amazing’
Miles Ukaoma, a first-team All-America senior from Maize, Kan., could not agree more with his teammate. “What I think is so awesome about Billy is the way his athletes want to perform for him,” Ukaoma said. “When you want to perform for your coach, you can do some amazing things. We all just love the guy because he’s so kind-hearted and is a really good motivator, not only in meets, but in practice every day. I think that’s what makes a big difference for him and other coaches – the way they can push you in practice and make you better.”
Ukaoma, pictured in action above, couldn’t stop smiling on Nebraska’s Ed Weir outdoor track before a Tuesday photo for The N-Sider. “The rumor is that Coach Pepin hired Billy because he got so tired of recruiting against him when Billy was the head coach at LSU,” Ukaoma said. “He has a reputation of being pretty hard, but he’s kind of softened up.”
Softened up enough that after Nebraska’s disappointing Big Ten performance, Maxwell didn’t panic. Instead of intensifying workouts, he tapered his troops and allowed each to rest their legs and sharpen their minds. “He’s still hard-nosed,” Ukaoma said. “And I definitely feel when we didn’t compete well in the Big Ten meet, that’s what really drove us to do what we did in the regional. If we would have done in Ohio what we did in Arkansas, we would have won the Big Ten Championship.”
Recovered Hall Rejoins 4x100 Relay Team
But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone. “I think it could all work out well in the NCAA,” Ukaoma said. “It could be pretty awesome if all of our guys get excited and do nationally what we didn’t do in the conference. Billy has a young heart, man. He’s really lovable and a great guy that can get you excited about a challenge. He just has that personality that we all want to connect with. He’s the kind of guy that makes you want to win for him as much as you want to win for yourself.”
Guess who’s the least surprised person in Lincoln when he hears such positively charged comments from Rush and Ukaoma? You are absolutely right…Gary Pepin.
“Billy told me after the Big Ten meet, he was a little surprised at what happened, but was expecting some exceptional performances at regionals,” Pepin said. “That was one of the strongest sprint/hurdle relay performances we’ve ever had at Nebraska, if not the strongest. I really felt happy for Billy. We’ve had two of our very best athletes (junior Ricco Hall and sophomore Oldadapo Akinmoladun) hurt this spring. What we’ve done without two of our most accomplished athletes has been really special.”
Sean Pille: The Biggest Surprise of All
Hall has healed a stress fracture to help Nebraska's 4x100-meter NCAA qualifying relay team, joining teammates John Welk, Dexter McKenzie, and Tim Thompson. Joining Ukaoma as a 400-meter hurdle qualifier are Tibor Koroknai, Mate Koroknai and Jodi-Rae Blackwood, two recruits from Hungary and one from Jamaica, thanks to important leadership and assistance from Matt Martin, who helps Maxwell recruit.
The Huskers’ 4x400-meter relay team includes Levi Gipson, Drew Wiseman, and Jacob Bender. They run the respective first, second and third legs before Rush, an individual 400-meter NCAA qualifier, anchors the group.
Billy’s Boys also includes Sean Pille, a sophomore from Nebraska’s Oakland-Craig High School, who qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 110-meter hurdles. “That kid (pictured above) is the biggest surprise of all,” Maxwell said. “He ran a 14.40 in high school and all of a sudden, two years later, he’s running one of the fastest times in Nebraska history.” Somehow, coaching has to be a factor in that kind of transformation.
Maxwell's Biggest Stunner in Four Decades
Yes, the NCAA West Regional was a stunner, even for a devout and usually unflappable Husker assistant coach. “In 45 years of coaching,” Maxwell said, “I’ve never had a group do so well in one meet. Our 4x100-meter relay time has been close to 40 seconds all year long, and they ran a 39.24, the second fastest time in school history, and we’ve had some really good 4x100 relay teams. The 400 hurdles? I don’t know if any school in NCAA history has had four guys run that close to 50 seconds. That’s just unbelievable!”
Maxwell admitted frustration and even anger when “his boys” misfired in the Big Ten. “I get after kids, but they still know I love ‘em and I care about ‘em,” he said. “We didn’t do a lot of training last week. We rested and talked about what happened. I knew every one of those kids was capable of qualifying for the NCAA. Everyone believed, and that’s one of the biggest parts of coaching – getting kids to believe what you believe. It was exciting, really exciting. But the next challenge is much bigger than that one, and every kid there has to continue to believe.”
Billy’s Boys Surround Their ‘Lovable’ Coach
Here’s the caption for the photo at the top of The N-Sider:
Front: Tim Thompson, Billy Maxwell, John Welk, Jodi-Rae Blackwood
Second: Ricco Hall, Christian Sanderfer (alternate)
Third: Mate Koroknai, Sean Pille
Fourth: Miles Ukaoma, Jake Bender, Drew Wiseman, Eric Lund (volunteer coach)
Fifth: Dexter McKenzie, Cody Rush, Tibor Koroknai, Levi Gipson
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