Ashland University's indoor track and field program doesn't have a mindset of just qualifying athletes and simply competing in the NCAA Division II Championships.
The Eagles want to thrive at them.
"Teams that win titles, teams that win large trophies, are those who defend or better their rank," said Ashland head coach Jud Logan. "If kids can just defend their rank, they would take it. We talk a lot about bettering or defending that rank."
The AU women and men, who at one point during the season each were ranked No. 1 in the country, come into nationals (Friday and Saturday, March 13-14, in Birmingham, Ala.) ranked third and fourth in Division II, respectively. Ashland's best finish at indoor nationals has been second for the men and tied for second for the women.
Ashland's men have 14 athletes going to nationals. Half of those 14 will compete in one event – the men's weight throw. Senior Zac Ball, sophomore Bryn Campbell, senior Jared Conklin, sophomore Jordan Crayon, senior James Clay Harris, freshman Clayton Jury and senior Mack Taylor all qualified in the weight, with Ball having the country's third-best seed mark (71-feet-10/21.89 meters), and Conklin the fourth-best (71-feet-9½/21.88 meters).
Four of those seven – Ball, Taylor, Crayon and Conklin – started with the program as walk-ons.
"The good news is the tradition of the weight throw in our program has made this a landing ground, and something that everyone in our program wants to be a part of in our men's program," Logan said. "It's an event that we hope it can kick off, between that and the DMR, with a solid amount of points."
The men's distance medley relay is where Ashland gets its 23rd athlete to nationals. Freshman Halen Witcher replaces senior Elijha Owens, who will concentrate on the 400-meter dash and 60-meter hurdles, in the relay. Witcher joins seniors Drew Windle and Joshua Davis and junior Nick Hall.
"I like who's on the team, and it doesn't matter who's in what spot," Logan said. "It just matters that Drew Windle is on that team, and Nick Hall is on that team and Josh Davis is on that team."
Owens comes into nationals with the third-best seed time in the men's 400 dash (47.48 seconds) and the fourth-best seed time in the men's 60-meter hurdles (7.86 seconds).
"We hope that it enables him to score more points," Logan said of keeping Owens out of the DMR. "You can be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, so we're trying to have Elijha master those two."
Then, of course, there is Windle in the men's 800 run – an event in which he is the No. 1 seed this year (1:48.41) and which he has won a national title in four times, two indoors and two outdoors.
"(It's) certainly not a slam dunk. There are guys who are running a half-second to three-quarters of a second of him," Logan said. "He has an extreme belief in himself and what we wants to do. He wants to score 10 points. He wants to maximize the team points."
Hall also will compete in the men's mile run, and has the country's fifth-best time coming in (4:07.31).
"There's not a lot of people in the country who think he is capable of being top three or four in the mile, and we do," said Logan. "He's verbalized his goals to me a number of times this season, and I'm buying it. I'm excited to watch him run that mile."
On the women's side, nine athletes will compete at nationals. Of those nine, five are throwers.
"The throwing element for the women is a much higher percentage of the points available," Logan said. "Not only do we have Shatora (Lewis), Jess (Bridenthal) and Megan (Tomei) in the weight, we have them in the shot put.
"The women's team will be a direct reflection of how those five women compete. We don't have a DMR. We don't have that individual distance runner."
Lewis, a senior, is the top-ranked D-II woman in the weight throw (70-feet-1¾/21.38 meters), and Bridenthal, another senior, is ranked second (69-feet-2½/21.09 meters). Yet another senior, Kim Habegger, is ranked fifth.
Junior Jamie Sindelar, named the Midwest Region Women's Field Athlete of the Year on Monday (March 9) by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA), is ranked No. 1 in the country thanks to the second-best indoor women's shot put mark in Division II history (55-feet-4¼/16.87 meters).
"There's not a lot of experience outside of those women's throws," Logan said. "If the women get it done, it will be in large part because that throws group got it done."
Senior Jennifer Foster is the No. 2 seed in the women's high jump (5-feet-10½/1.79 meters), but Logan said she is "banged up." Logan said freshman Irene Skinner can score team points in the women's 400-meter dash, and also heading to nationals are senior Jennifer Bjelac in the women's pentathlon and sophomore Rebecca Koval in the women's high jump.
While the throws for both the AU men and women will be key, there are a number of other athletes who can provide the Eagles with key team points.
"It's very important to me as a coach not to be known as a throws program, but as one of the best track programs in the country," Logan said. "And that is happening, and it is a direct reflection of the coaches and their relentless recruiting. Get out and get the best team that we can get."
In the end, the program's goals are as lofty as ever – with good reason. Logan sees a potential top-four podium finish for both the men and the women, and he says "little micro-wins" along the way can add up to a big team score.
"We've never sat here and talked about this is a year we can win a national championship," said Logan. "This is a year we can compete for the podium, and any year we can do that is a good year. We have to attack each individual event."
The schedule of events for the Division II Championships can be found here - http://i.turner.ncaa.com/dr/ncaa/ncaa7/release/sites/default/files/images/2015/01/26/2015_dii_itf_schedule_-_final.pdf.