LEWISTON — Two seniors with different degrees of unfinished business. One freshman, already the school’s best ever in his discipline, just putting a promising four-year journey into gear.
Bates College builds upon its proud track and field tradition with a three-pronged threat at the NCAA Division III indoor track and field championships this weekend at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
Vantiel Elizabeth Duncan of Topsham, a three-time All-American making her fifth trip to a national showcase, is a title contender in both the shot put and weight throw. Her classmate, Rich McNeil, also is qualified in both those events and looks to add indoor laurels to his pair of outdoor All-America honors.
Duncan placed sixth in the women’s weight throw last year for her second straight All-America recognition. She’s seeded fifth in that event, fourth in shot put.
“This year we’re going for the big ‘W.’ It’s about time,” Duncan said.
Freshman Jesse Chapman will compete in the pentathlon after edging another hopeful by a single point to claim the final qualifying spot.
“It’s a great event,” Chapman said of the pentathlon, which rewards aggregate performance in hurdles, long jump, high jump, shot put and the 1,000-meter run. “It’s not something you do in high school, but when you get to college and you finish the pent, it’s a real sense of accomplishment.”
Persistence and good health paid dividends for McNeil this winter.
After starting his career with three consecutive trips to outdoor nationals and two All-America seasons in the hammer throw, McNeil didn’t enjoy the same fortunes from December to March. His top sophomore weight throw missed the indoor qualifying threshold by less than two centimeters.
McNeil broke his foot during the junior preseason and couldn’t fully recover in time to qualify for NCAAs.
“It was kind of nice to be actually healthy and be pretty successful indoors for once,” McNeil said. “The going to nationals is kind of old. It’s now time to just do well. Am I going to win? Not necessarily. I’d like to think I can.”
Seeded 12th in the weight throw, McNeil also squeezed into the final shot put invitation with a career-best throw and victory at the ECAC Division III championship last weekend.
“I was fifth sophomore year, and eighth last year (in the outdoor hammer throw). In both events, fifth would be much higher than my seed,” McNeil said. “Seeds are thrown out the window. It’s just competing.”
Chapman credited Lewiston native and University of Southern Maine athlete James Spaulding’s pre-race words and fast pace for helping him shatter his personal record in the 1,000 by more than six seconds, giving him the points he needed to top the qualifying standard.
The road to Bates and beyond has been an amazing ride for Chapman, who weighed 260 pounds as a high school sophomore. He never ran a hurdle event until his junior year, when his coach in Vermont entered him to fill out the field and pocket a handful of points at a regular-season meet.
“I loved it and decided I wanted to commit myself to being a good hurdler,” Chapman said. “That summer I lost 60 pounds. That fall I went from being last on my cross country team to first.”
Prep school gave Chapman an extra year to become a gym rat and hone those skills on his own. At Bates, two early-season muscle pulls and a sinus infection slowed his progress and kept him from qualifying until the final hours.
Duncan’s continued success is no such surprise.
Her two most decorated immediate predecessors were multiple national champions. Liz Wanless ruled the shot put at both 2004 indoor and outdoor meets. Keelin Godsey captured back-to-back hammer throw titles in 2005 and ’06.
“It might make you nervous in the beginning, but it’s an honor in the end,” Duncan said. “To be a Bates thrower is to not only understand that you come from a great program, but to know the people who’ve come before you. If you’re always compared all the time, it tells you how great the program is when you have those names behind you. People know when the Bates College throwers are walking through the door and walking to that circle.”
Noah Gauthier was Bates’ last men’s national champ, winning the 2008 weight throw.
Duncan anticipates that her experience and McNeil’s will help them concentrate on the task at hand.
Nationals are a whirlwind trip featuring a lengthy flight, a banquet and opportunities to meet and make friends with competitors. Athletes often find that the pressure makes more impact on their distances and times than the adrenaline rush.
“You don’t realize until you go and see it, but the (qualifying) times, distances and scoring are not what you’re going to see at the national meet,” she said. “First time, I threw five feet underneath my PR, ended up squeaking into eighth and getting All-American. It’s all about how you handle the mental pressure and go into that circle.”