LINCOLN — Nebraska track and field coach Gary Pepin still cringes when thinking about how close the Husker men came to winning last year’s Big Ten indoor championship.
The Huskers finished in fourth place with 86.66 points, but fell just 3.33 points behind Wisconsin for the title. The margin was painful, Pepin said, as a series of unexpected shortfalls and a few missteps left Nebraska wondering what could have been.
“We had a number of screw-ups in the meet, but ability-wise we had a team that was good enough to win the meet,” said Pepin, who is entering his 34th season leading the men’s and women’s track and field teams.
NU returns much of last year’s talent and has added enough quality newcomers that Pepin said the Huskers could return to the top of the Big Ten standings at the Feb. 28 to March 1 conference meet, where NU can bring up to 32 competitors.
That leaves Pepin with an enviable problem of choosing which 32 athletes put the Huskers in the best position to bring home a Big Ten title. The process starts this weekend when Nebraska opens the season with the Holiday Inn Invitational on Friday and Saturday at the Devaney Center.
The men open the season ranked No. 8 in the country and return 12 competitors who have earned first- or second-team All-America honors, led by senior long jumper Patrick Raedler, the defending Big Ten indoor champion.
“It’s a team that certainly should be competing for a conference championship as a team provided we go into the conference meet healthy,” Pepin said.
The NU men figure to have plenty of depth at the sprints. The 1,600-meter relay team of Levi Gipson, Christian Sanderfer, Miles Ukaoma and Cody Rush are back after winning the conference outdoor title last year. Sophomore Oladapo Akinmoladun had one of the best times in the world last year among juniors (under 21) in the 60-meter hurdles and has All-America potential, but he false started in the Big Ten indoor meet last year.
Local product Tim Thompson (Boys Town) joins a pair of Jamaica natives, Dexter McKenzie and Jodi-Rae Blackwood, to round out what Pepin considers one of the best sprinting groups he’s had during his tenure.
“We probably have the most depth and quality in the sprints that we’ve had in years and years,” he said.
The field events hold promise with Boise State transfer Will Lohman joining senior Chad Wright in the throws, and freshman Davon Clark, a Florida high school state champion, filling out a jumper contingent that includes Seth Wiedel and Devandrew Johnson.
Freshman Steven Cahoy, who set the Nebraska Class A pole vault record while at Grand Island, also could compete for a conference spot right away.
Pepin said last year’s Husker women’s team was riddled with injuries, but the addition of some new faces could help it compete for the Big Ten title it last won in 2012.
One of the world’s top young long jumpers, Tatiana Akmukhamedova, won’t compete at Nebraska after being brought back home by the Russian track and field federation before she could compete for the Huskers. But freshman Jazmin McCoy, a state champion in Missouri, is another young jumper to watch.
Jillanna Scanlan, a senior from Plattsmouth, finished second in the high jump at last year’s Big Ten indoor meet, and Pepin said NU has three potential All-Big Ten athletes in the triple jump.
In the sprints, all eyes will be on freshman Kadecia Baird from Brooklyn, N.Y., who ran a 23.85 in the 200 meters to break the meet record at the team’s intrasquad meet last month.
“She’s a star,” Pepin said. “She should be really, really good.”