Montana freshman Brendan Thurber-Blaser is in second place after day one of the decathlon at the Big Sky Conference outdoor track and field championships, and senior Nicole Stroot is in third in the heptathlon as the four-day meet at Sacramento, Calif., got underway on Wednesday.
That a pair of Grizzlies is primed to sweep the multi-events with a strong showing on Thursday isn’t a surprise. But that it doesn’t include junior Erika McLeod, last year’s heptathlon champion, is more than shocking.
“It was heartbreaking. I was frustrated for her,” said Stroot, who watched her friend and teammate no-height in Wednesday’s second event, the high jump.
McLeod, who started her day with a speedy time of 14.61 in the 100-meter hurdles, has a PR in the high jump of 5-5.75, but she missed three times at her opening height of 4-11.75.
She competed in the shot put, then called it good. She did not start the 200 meters and won’t compete on Thursday, instead saving her energy for the open events on Friday and Saturday, when she’ll compete in the 200 meters, long jump and both relays.
“It’s hard to see your teammate go through that,” added Stroot. “The hardest part was trying not to let it affect me, because we were high jumping at the same time.
“I needed to be a good teammate to Erika, but I also had to block it out and focus on my own events.”
Stroot took the overall lead after the opening event, running a career-best time of 14.18 in the hurdles. She had marks of 5-2.25 in the high jump and 34-9.5 in the shot put before taking more than half a second off her PR in the 200, closing the day with a time of 25.33 that only three athletes outdid.
Twice a Big Sky runner-up, last May in the long jump at the outdoor championships and in February in the pentathlon behind McLeod, Stroot will try to win her first title on Thursday.
Her 3,091 points through four events are a PR for the opening day. On Thursday she’ll try to reel in Bailey Woodbury of Idaho State, who is 86 points ahead of Stroot, and Sacramento State’s Kassandra Corrigan, who has 3,147 points.
The day will open with the long jump, and the event, which is one of Stroot’s strongest, will set the tone for everyone at the top of the leaderboard.
“I’m excited, but I don’t want to get too excited. That happened to me at the Montana Open (two weeks ago), when I had a really good first day, then a terrible long jump the next day,” said Stroot.
“I just have to remember to learn from that and stay relaxed and remember that I had an 18-8 last week, so I know I can do it. I’ve just got to put it all together.”
Montana won’t get scoring from McLeod in the heptathlon, but the Grizzlies could still get multiple point producers.
Sophomore Jenna Dukovcic had PRs in three of the four events on Wednesday and is sitting in 10th place, 81 points out of seventh.
She went 15.15 in the hurdles, 5-2.25 in the high jump, 30-5 in the shot put and 26.06 in the 200 meters. All but her shot put were career bests.
Freshman Hannah Coburn, with a PR in the shot put, is in 13th place with 2,779 points, less than 100 points from the top eight.
Montana hasn’t been a factor in the decathlon since Austin Emry was around, but a pair of freshmen is on the verge of changing that.
Thurber-Blaser, whose best events are on day two, is in second place with 3,630 points, 179 behind Alex Acevedo of Sacramento State. Hanging just 51 points behind Thurber-Blaser, with 3,579, is teammate Josh Riley, who is in fourth.
“They both had great days,” said UM multi-events coach Adam Bork. “They are both feeling good and healthy, so they were competing hard all day.
“They both showed up and looked confident and like they belonged. They weren’t hesitant and were competing without any fear. They definitely didn’t look like freshmen. They were expecting to be near the top of the competition.”
Thurber-Blaser didn’t win any of Wednesday’s five events, but he was in the top five in four of them, and that consistency has him in position to become Montana’s fifth decathlon champion since 2000.
He had PRs in three events on Wednesday, opening up with career bests in the 100 meters (11.29) and long jump (22-6.5) before going 40-6.25 in the shot put, 6-3.25 in the high jump and 52.59 in the 400 meters.
“Day one is about speed and explosion. Day two is more about fine motor skills and the more technical events,” said Bork, whose athletes will compete in the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters on Thursday.
“If Brendan has a solid day tomorrow, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t win. And I would love to see Josh hang on for that third or fourth spot.”
Riley had or matched collegiate bests in three of Wednesday’s five events and moved up the leaderboard as the day progressed. He won the high jump at 6-6.75 and placed fourth in the 400 meters with a time of 50.09.
Montana’s other two decathletes, junior Charlie Bush and freshman Grant Whitcutt, are both outside the top 12, but Bush has some of his stronger events on day two, particularly the pole vault, which could have him sneaking up into the top eight and scoring points for the Grizzlies.
“Charlie is always down the standings on the first day, but it’s important for guys like him to know that going in,” said Bork. “He’ll be able to pick up a lot of points on day two. With his pole vault and other events he does pretty well, I expect him to make a big move tomorrow.”
The decathlon begins at noon (MT) on Thursday, the heptathlon at 1 p.m. (MT).