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When Nebraska hosts the first-ever combined Men's and Women's Big Ten Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships Friday and Saturday at the Devaney Center, Gary Pepin has no idea what to expect. Check that. Nebraska's Hall-of-Fame head coach has been told to expect something close to sellout crowds both days because Big Ten fans follow their track and field teams better than fans from the Big Eight or the Big 12 Conferences, two leagues that made Pepin a veritable legend.
What Pepin doesn't realize is this: Now that Nebraska is a member of the oldest conference in the land, the Huskers are in a league of their own ... one that has 300 intercollegiate teams and more than 9,500 student-athletes. That is not a misprint. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told the N-Sider last summer his league has 50 percent more overall student-athletes than any other of the 12 biggest conferences in college athletics. So it's a case of simple math. Larger squad sizes mean more student-athletes from more schools, and that menas more moms and dads, sisters and brothers, grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles than Pepin usually sees at an indoor track and field meet.
And that leads me to the N-Sider tip of the week: Every Nebraska fan who can should make it a point to head straight to the Devaney Center for a spectacle they won't soon forget. The Huskers may not win the men's or the women's team championship, but they have all kinds of athletes who will use this meet to elevate their status. Two of them happen to be seniors who graduated from Nebraska high schools and would love nothing more than to find a niche in this historic meet. They come into the competition with stars in their eyes and all the confidence in the world from their head coach.
Nate Polacek: Maher's High School Teammate
One is an aerial performer. Click the bio of Nate Polacek (pronounced puh-LAH-check) and you think you're looking at a kid who's trying out for the junior class play. He's sweet and innocent, the perfect cover for a daredevil in disguise. Whenever the Kearney (Neb.) High School graduate plants a pole, he's capable of sailing 18 feet into the Devaney Center's skylights. He's an All-American with a personal best of 17-10½, which earned him a fourth-place finish in the 2011 NCAA Indoor Championships. Here's the bottom line for Nate, who ranks in a tie for the fifth-best Nebraska high school vault of all-time with a state record 16-0 effort in the state high school track meet. That's two inches behind former Kearney prep teammate Brett Maher, who ranks third on the all-time chart, but already has his place in the sun when he successfully succeeded Alex Henery as Nebraska's starting kicker and punter.
Another Nebraska native capable of Big Ten gold is Luke Pinkelman, who looks like he majors in brute strength instead of Criminal Justice. He played on the same high school football team at Cozad (Neb.) with Husker defensive tackle All-American Jared Crick. Pinkelman wanted to play both football and compete in track at Nebraska. Then NU head coach Bill Callahan showed no interest, so Pinkelman went to Iowa State for the daily double. Two years later, he was back at Nebraska and has blossomed ever since. He's grateful that Pepin didn't judge him by his youthful desire and welcomed him back with open arms because "he was a Nebraska guy" and has a sister. Redshirt freshman Carlie Pinkelman is also a discus thrower/shot putter on the Nebraska track and field team, and she's hoping her All-America brother can win a Big Ten championship in the shot put to match the gold he won in the Big 12 last year.
Deep down, Pinkelman's motive to win is as pure as it is raw. He wants to win a conference title for Mark Colligan, the longtime Nebraska throws coach who died unexpectedly before the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships last June in Des Moines. "I knew Coach Colligan really well. This season is all for him," Pinkelman said. "The last thing he ever said to me was: 'Luke, have faith in whatever you do."
Pinkelman, Colligan Successor Honoring Coach
Pinkelman is not the only one dedicating this weekend's Big Ten Championships to Colligan. Carrie Lane, a USA National Team assistant coach for the World Championships, succeeded Colligan as Nebraska's throws coach. "This whole season, it's for Coach Colligan," she said, explaining how much of an honor it is to follow a man who coached his athletes to 12 national titles and a combined 68 All-America honors.
The trials in the men's pole vault begin at 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Devaney Center, followed by the finals. The trials in the Big Ten men's shot put begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by the finals. Even though there is plenty of action beyond those two events Friday night, you might want to consider leaving work a little early to root for two Husker seniors, each of whom have a legitimate chance to win a Big Ten title.
Be sure to get there as early as you can. Seats for this first-ever Big Ten Conference Championship event in Lincoln may be hard to come by.
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