Race for the podium: GV women finish national runner-up, men take eighth at NCAA Indoor Championships

Jacob Arvidson

It took the final seconds, of the final heat, of the final event to determine Grand Valley State’s chance at the NCAA Division II women’s indoor national championship podium.

Rachael Walters carried the baton for the 4×400-meter relay—and the hopes of the entire GVSU team—across the finish line in the meet’s last event to vault the Laker women from fifth place into second, earning them the national runners-up trophy.

“With three events to go, I was just hoping we’d muster up enough points to get on the podium,” said GVSU coach Jerry Baltes. “Things came together there at the end and we were able to climb up to that runner-up finish.”

The women finished with 39 points overall, overtaking Chadron State by just one point after their performance in the 4×400 relay. The Laker men finished in eighth place overall, scoring 23 points over the course of the three-day meet in Birmingham, Alabama.

“On the men’s side, we had a lot of individuals score and get on the podium, but we just had a lot of sixth, seventh and eighth place finishes,” Baltes said. “It’s certainly a positive, but to get on the trophy you have to have a couple big hitters. Those points just don’t add up as fast as runner-up or third place.”

GVSU combined to produce 19 All-Americans and break four school records.

The first record came in none other than the 4×400 relay, where Chant’e Roberts, Angela Ritter, Jessica O’Connell and Walters carried the entire Laker team to victory in 3:42.50, while breaking their own record of 3:43.09 from exactly one month earlier.

Roberts fell behind by less than a step out of the blocks, but handed the baton to Ritter with a lead. Ritter and O’Connell extended that lead and watched Walters bring home the win in the heat, earning them the second place in the event. Finishing in third in the 4×400 would have knocked the Lakers down to third place as a team.

Ritter helped the relay team to a record performance even having already set two other records earlier in the meet.

“I still can’t fathom that we’re the second fastest 4×4 team in the nation and that we’re the second best ladies’ track squad in the nation,” Ritter said. “It was by far one of my proudest teammate moments.”

She finished in fifth place in the 60-meter dash with a time of 7.51 seconds, but her 7.43-second performance in the prelims of the event broke Icis Charles’ GVSU record time of 7.50 seconds set in 2002.

Ritter then went on to take eighth in the 400-meter dash with a time of 55.01. The mark breaks her own record of 55.08 seconds set earlier this year.

“She had a great three days,” Baltes said. “She had a great prelim in the 60. And that’s a tough double, running the 60 and then having to come back 45 minutes later and run 400 meters is not easy to do. She handled that very, very well.”

A record also fell on the men’s side. Hunter Weeks continued his strong year in the high jump, finishing third in the country. He cleared the bar on his first jump at 2.02, 2.07 and 2.10 meters to guarantee himself a top four finish. It took all three jumps to clear at 2.13 meters, but once he did, he earned the opportunity to break Jeremy Pearson’s 17-year-old record of 2.15 meters. Brushing the bar on his way over at 2.16 meters, Weeks was relieved to see it stay in place, allowing him to break Pearson’s record after coming so close on multiple occasions throughout the season.

“It felt pretty good, though I wish I would have cleared it clean,” Weeks said. “But it’s cool that my name’s finally going to be up there. I never thought I would be close to that. Last year I looked at that, jumping 2.11 last year, and thought it was crazy. Now it’s real and it feels amazing.”

Zach Panning and Kendra Foley also came up big in multiple events for the Lakers. Panning finished in 14:05.17 to take fourth in the 5,000-meter run and then returned to take eighth in the 3,000 with a time of 8:07.31.

“The Missouri Southern boy and James (Ngandu) from Tiffin went out and ran fast and hard and forced the hand on the rest of the field,” Baltes said. “The races were fast, aggressive and painful. They were hurting so much when they were running, that I was hurting.”

Foley took second in the women’s 5,000 with her time of 16.23.85, falling less than a second short at the finish line. She returned to help the distance medley relay to take fifth, running the final leg to carry the baton across the line in 11:33.62. She then followed those performances with a 9:29.04 finish in the 3,000 to steal fourth place.

The Laker athletes will jump right back into action as the outdoor season begins. The sprinters head to South Carolina Friday, March 17, and the distance runners will travel west to California the following week as GVSU tries to earn early qualifying marks.