Think about North Carolina athletics. Who comes to mind? What teams? What years? What star players making star plays?
When people think about the Tar Heels, they think about Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Julius Peppers. A younger generation thinks of Marcus Paige, Harrison Barnes and Mitch Trubisky. Maybe some think of Mia Hamm, or any of the incomprehensible list of brilliant soccer players to don Carolina Blue in Fetzer Field.
Now, honestly, who thought about that crazy track race that one time? That crazy javelin throw, or the brilliant long jump? No one, probably. But for me, I think about Shalane Flanagan. I remember the image of her walking up the hill in Greenville, S.C. — a race during which I was three years old. Then, the image of breaking the tape, twice, on the cross country course. Those two NCAA crowns are the only individual or team titles since 1947, when Jack Milne won one.
But I digress; this is about the oval. The blue one that is soon to be nestled down Laurel Hill from campus. Surrounded by trees and beautiful new turf fields. Right amidst the lovely Finely Golf Course. That track, that symbol of what’s to come.
In 2015, Duke University ripped up its old track from its old football stadium with the promise of a bright new track facility behind Koskinen Stadium. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. Durham is not Eugene, Ore., the track capital of the country and arguably the world. But Friday, in the Battle of the Blues, Duke proved me wrong. That track is nice, and despite being a small, not terribly well-attended meet between three teams that are far from powerhouses (see: my tweet about Alan Webb not toeing the line for Michigan), the atmosphere at that meet was phenomenal.
When Marcus Krah took the W in his first collegiate outdoor race — did we expect anything else? — and when Brianna Duncan took down yet another school record, everyone was on their feet. When the showdown between Michigan standout Erin Finn (okay, maybe I should retract the Alan Webb comment) and UNC star Morgan Ilse reached its peak just over a mile in, that facility got loud. Throwers got slow-clapped into their approaches. Every athlete got the cheers they deserved. It was a fun environment.
If you stuck with me through the Duke talk, thank you, because here’s where it gets fun. UNC’s facility is going to be just as great, if not better. Surrounded by forest on two sides and with open space on the others, sound is going to reverberate and carry around that new track. The new video board is going to bring a track experience Fetzer just never could. Oh, and let’s be honest — tracks just look better covered in a layer of the Carolina shade of blue.
The facility being constructed should be reason enough to spend your spring days watching the Heels compete, but it is far from the only one. I mentioned Krah and Duncan; those two are a redshirt first-year and sophomore, respectively. Krah will continue to grow into the star he so desperately deserves to be. Duncan is hungry and will continue to blast her way through the best times ever run by Carolina sprinters — not to mention that she's well on her way to competing for titles. After a redshirt year, Nicole Greene will have two more shots to get not only that coveted outdoor title, but hit the Olympic standard and make a run at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Just this week, Anna Keefer was named ACC Field Performer of the Week for her massive long jump at that Battle of the Blues meet. Keefer has been crushing it all season and has only big things to come in her future. There are so many other names that I won’t even try to cover them all. But this group of competitors is not only dropping huge personal records every meet but chipping away at the best performances in school history.
These performances could be seen as baby steps, but if that’s so, then they are enormous ones. All of this is great for the individuals hitting these marks, but it's so much bigger than that. These performances inch the UNC track and field (and cross country) teams a little bit closer to competing as a team, not just individuals. Every time the Heels have someone compete for an NCAA, even ACC championship, it opens the door for that recruit asking themselves, “Can I win in Chapel Hill?” When Nicole Greene won her indoor high jump title, the answer — for the first time since 2007 — became a resounding: YES.
Yes, you can win in Chapel Hill. No, it will never be Eugene, but surely we don’t expect UNC to compare to the program that Bill Bowerman build. And no, the new facility won’t be Hayward Field. But it doesn’t need to be. Head coach Harlis Meaders has something going at UNC, and I am incredibly optimistic about the future of this program. The athletes I’ve discussed are as much of Tar Heels to me as Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. No one appreciated Shalane Flanagan enough when we had her, so this is my plea to remember their names — they really are the start of something special.