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Why Nebraska’s back in track and field

Maddie Harris cradles a sack of toys. All different colors.

“Squishy dinosaurs,” the Nebraska javelin thrower says, squeezing a purple stegosaurus between her thumb and forefinger. Stress dinos for outdoor nationals — the meet of her year and that of 19 teammates. That’s a lot of Huskers making NCAAs. The most in nine years.

A lot of rubber reptiles for track and field friends.

“We’re going to all these big meets, and we’re bringing a whole bunch of people,” Harris says. “It’s not just eight. We have 20. I’ve never had this many training partners.”

Especially in javelin, where NU has two women (Harris and Rhema Otabor) and two men (Arthur Petersen and Dash Sirmon), all of whom have a chance to win a national title. Otabor and Harris, Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation, may be particularly tough to beat. The Huskers have the top-ranked female shot-putter (Axelina Johansson) and the Nos. 1 and 3 male shot-putters (Jonah Wilson and Maxwell Otterdahl), too.

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Four of them are transfers and Johansson may as well be. They all followed the guru of American throwers to NU’s new outdoor track, which is sandwiched between a warehouse hockey arena and a weed-flush creek. The unfinished facility — called Outdoor Track on NU’s website — is a blast furnace without shade or bleachers, suited to the Huskers’ industrial-sized water bottles. Should Nebraska ever intend to host a meet, the place needs work.

Throwers wear sweatshirts to prepare for 90-degree temps in Austin, Texas, site of the 2023 nationals. Their leader, in shorts and Ray-Ban sunglasses, makes a pointer or two. They’re here because of him.

NU coach Justin St. Clair — last year an assistant to Gary Pepin, then an interim head coach, and now the permanent head coach — has the Huskers back where they were in Pepin’s heyday. The men and women could each post top-10 team finishes at the NCAA Championships, with multiple national title winners.

“The whole team feels much closer than it ever did before,” Harris said. “My freshman year, to now, has been a complete 180 for the program.”

Harris’ first year, 2020, ended in the COVID pandemic. At the end of 2021, the old Ed Weir Track got demolished to make way for a new Husker football building. That same offseason, Pepin swept out a good chunk of his coaching staff. One of the new hires: St. Clair, who’d done wonders as North Dakota State’s throws coach. He immediately drew some of the nation’s top throwing transfers to NU, creating an “iron sharpens iron” environment. He drew more last year and took over for Pepin last August.

“There are days when, ‘Oh, I’m a little bit tired,’ but, my training partner, he’s not tired, he’s going to keep pushing, so you say, ‘Well, OK, I guess I’m tired, but I’ve gotta go,’” St. Clair said Friday. “Because this is the competition.”

Harris knew St. Clair’s reputation, so she listened to his tutelage. He can be “goofy” at times, demanding at others, but he’s good, Harris said, at knowing when to coach and how to step back at the right time, too.

“He knows how much he needs to say,” said Harris, NCAA runner-up in the javelin last year. “He stays calm when the athletes are getting all tense and stuff. He’s really cool like a cucumber when it comes to track meets.”

He has a particular reputation with javelin, where he was once a four-time collegiate All-American. Olympian Maggie Malone Hardin trains with St. Clair in preparation for the 2024 games in Paris. And Otabor — who finished fourth at the 2022 NCAAs — transferred in from Florida International in the offseason. Harris hosted her on the recruiting visit.

“I really liked my old school — great environment, great people — but I wanted something more,” Otabor said. “I wanted to be able to go to the pro level — and Nebraska is the place to help me do that. It is kind of specific to Justin. I knew the coaching here was going to be impeccable, and I’ve experienced that.”

Otabor has thrown the javelin 194 feet, 6 inches this season. Harris has thrown it 193-1. In the Texas heat, 190 or more should win gold on the women’s side. In the men’s competition — where Petersen ranks sixth nationally — it’ll likely take a throw of 270-275 feet.

Javelin is a long wait for a short outdoor season — four or five months in spring and summer. St. Clair likens its complexity to that of a heptathlete or decathlete. Run fast, stop suddenly, lift and launch. And don’t try to throw it too hard, either; the javelin will die in the air.

“Because everything is too restricted,” St. Clair said. “There is no stretch, there is no reflex.”

“It’s like hitting a home run in softball or baseball,” Harris said. “It feels ‘nice’ off the bat. Whenever you throw the javelin well, it feels ‘nice.’ It doesn’t feel like you had to go super-hard.”

A great performance, Harris said, is like “mixing a perfect potion.” Otabor presses Harris daily to improve, and vice versa.

“I love having her near me at practice because the competition, I love,” Otabor said. She and Harris — plus Johansson in the shot put — will compete Thursday for the national title. The male javelin and shot throwers compete Wednesday. The Husker men’s team, which won the Big Ten outdoor title, heads into the meet projected to finish fifth, the women sixth.

If all the throwers had the meets of their lives, perhaps NU could finish top three, or even, on the men’s side, win a national crown. But elite sprinters help win team track titles for teams like Arkansas and Texas, and Nebraska needs more of them.

St. Clair sees them coming. Already, Husker football has signed Brice Turner and Jaylen Lloyd, who have the chance of scoring points as sprinters. And St. Clair sees “more and more interest” on the recruiting trail because NU’s throwers have “moved the needle.”

He envisions a day when it’s not 20 athletes at NCAAs, but 40. Not four javelin throwers headed to nationals, but, seven, eight, nine of them. When iron sharpens iron all over the track, in every discipline the way it is with his throwers, elite clay is already molded by the artist.  

“You just sit back and watch and say, ‘Yep, this is how it’s supposed to be done,’” St. Clair said.

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