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Did you hear the one about the Latvian, the German and the Jamaican preparing to catch a plane Wednesday to represent the Nebraska men’s track and field team at this weekend’s Big Ten Conference Indoor Championships in Geneva, Ohio? Let’s put it this way: Even though all three international student-athletes came from individual-first backgrounds, they are now considered true Huskers at Heart. Therefore, they model a team-first mindset focused on winning another team title for Gary Pepin, NU’s record-setting head coach and their legendary leader.
With four Big Ten men’s track and field teams ranked in the nation’s Top 10 – No. 4 Nebraska, No. 7 Penn State, No. 9 Indiana and No. 10 Wisconsin – the Huskers would appear to be the Big Ten favorite after they finished third in their inaugural Big Ten indoor meet last year in Lincoln. The Nebraska women’s team won the Big 12 indoor meet in 2011 and the Big Ten indoor meet in 2012, but the Huskers are not expected to contend for a third straight league title.
Leitis, McKenzie, Raedler Help Lead Charge
“Penn State has to be the men’s favorite or at least one of them,” Pepin said. “We’re in the crowd, but so are the other teams, plus Minnesota, which is ranked in the top15.” Yes, Pepin was his usual snappish self, showing a distaste for Nebraska and favorite being mentioned in the same sentence, even though three of his top male international athletes – Janis Leitis, Dexter McKenzie and Patrick Raedler – fully embrace it.
“It was disappointing to lose last year’s title in the last relay event at the Devaney Center, but this year we will get our revenge,” said Raedler, a junior longer jumper from Germany who finished second at the 2012 Big Ten Indoor. “If we would have finished even third in that relay, we would have won the championship,” recalled McKenzie, a junior sprinter from Jamaica who was disappointed to see Nebraska get disqualified in the meet’s final event.
“I wasn’t here last year, but I think everyone who was there wants to avenge that defeat,” said Leitis, a senior who transferred to Nebraska from Riga, Latvia, and is a serious contender to win Big Ten gold medals in the long jump and the 4x400 relay.
Hall Has Chance to Win Big Ten 400 Meters
“Janis, Dexter and Patrick all have a chance to win individual events, and Ricco Hall is up there pretty high in the 400,” Pepin said. Even though Leitis has the Big Ten’s best 400-meter time, he will not compete in the event because it is scheduled only two hours before the ultra-important long jump, an event that could produce a veritable windfall of Nebraska points. Leitis, representing Latvia at the 2012 Olympic Games, finished fifth in the 400 quarterfinals in London. “I am focusing for this meet on the long jump, the triple jump and running the anchor for the 4X400,” he said.
White Faces Major High Jump Challenge
With a 7-4¼ high jump, NU teammate James White can add significant team points in the Big Ten meet, even though he will be competing against an Indiana senior who was the Olympic silver medalist.
Look for the long jump to give the Husker men a big lift on opening day Friday. The trials and finals in that event will begin at 3:45 p.m. CT. Leitis and Raedler are both capable of winning the long jump.
It’s the team way and the Nebraska way. “We both want to win, but we also both want our teammates (Nikita Pankins, a freshman from Latvia, and Teddy Lampkin, a sophomore transfer from Iowa State) to push us and create a 1-2-3-4 sweep in the long jump,” Raedler said, pointing out that Pankins is less than an inch from jumping 25 feet and Lampkin has jumped 24-4½ indoors. Leitis and Raedler are keenly aware that two newcomers can win any given meet.
Mara Griva. Mara Weekes Key Performers
Leitis and Pankins aren’t NU’s only Latvian long jumpers who have performed at a high level. Mara Griva, a senior captain from Latvia who has dated Leitis for more than three years, is looking for a 3-peat in the triple jump, having won the 2011 Big 12 indoor and the 2012 Big Ten indoor. If Nebraska is to contend for its own back-to-back-to-back team title, the leadership falls to Griva and Mara Weekes, a junior sprinter from Barbados. “Our high numbers are down on the women’s side, and we have to recruit our way back to where we were (2012 Big Ten Indoor champions),” Pepin said. “This weekend, we might be fortunate just to finish in the top half of the conference on the women’s side.”
Like her fellow Latvians, Griva is aiming higher. “After winning last year, no one’s expecting us to do much this year,” she said. “We were a big surprise last year. Our goal is for everyone to hit her personal best or even better. We have tremendous team spirit, and we will do what we can to surprise people again. That’s the best thing about track. You never know what can happen until you go out and do the best you can.”
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