As the final day of the MIAA Championship neared its end Feb. 24, Northwest track and field’s men’s 4-x-400 relay team prepared to take the track for the last race of the day. As they did so, the relay squad was battered and exhausted after three days of competition.
Junior Marcus Klein won the long jump less than 20 minutes before leading off the men’s 4-x-400, and he was understandably tired when he took the track.
Senior Kevin Schultz, the relay’s third leg, took the top spot in the men’s heptathlon the day before and placed first in the long jump just a few hours ahead of the race. Sophomore Caelon Harkey and freshman Omar Austin each ran in both the men’s 200-meter and 400-meter races in the hours leading up to the relay.
In short, the group was not well-rested. And the first leg of the relay put them in a suboptimal position to win the race. By the time Schultz handed the baton to Austin for the relay’s final 400 meters, Lincoln and Central Missouri had a sizeable lead on the Bearcats, and the gap seemed too large for the freshman to overcome, until, of course, he did.
“To just run them down like that, it took a lot from me,” Austin said. “Knowing we were behind like that, I knew I had to go give my all. I know some of my boys, they were tired, but I had to give my all for them.”
In giving his all, Austin closed the gap, helping the Bearcats earn the win with a time of 3:12.16. In doing so, Northwest edged out Central Missouri by just over a 10th of a second, set a program record for the event and automatically qualified for the NCAA Division II Championship.
“Coming down that finish line, I gave everything I got,” Austin said. “I can honestly say I didn’t hold nothing back. I gave everything. When I crossed that line, it felt good to see that we PR’d, that we (automatically qualified), to see that I helped my team get first place.”
The moment served as an exclamation point on what was an exciting weekend for Northwest. The first place finish in the 4-x-400 secured a second place overall finish for the men’s team at the conference meet.
A year after finishing the MIAA meet with just 33 points and a ninth place finish, the Northwest men finished with 115 points, just six points behind Central Missouri’s first-place total of 121.
Austin, Harkey, Schultz and Klein all had an impact on the way the Bearcats finished, both individually and together.
“They gave their all,” Austin said of his teammates’ performance. “Marcus didn’t get off to a good start, but I know he still fought. Caelon fought, did what he did. Kevin did what he did to fight. I can’t take all the credit for playing catch-up, ‘cause I know they ran their butts off. I just finished it off for them. I got them the win that they deserved.”
While Austin found himself at the center of some of the weekend’s most captivating moments; Schultz was the meet’s highest point scorer. In all, the senior walked away with a win in the heptathlon, a first-place 2.14-meter high jump and a shared victory in the relay.
In his last MIAA championship meet, the first hosted by Northwest in the meet’s 78-year history, Schultz took home four trophies.
“Everything went to plan,” Schultz said. “The weekend went perfect, at least for me. We came out at second. The goal was first, but six points shy. The team did awesome. We went off.”
Schultz and Austin have made for an interesting and dynamic pairing for the Bearcats this season. While Austin has tended to be an eccentric source of energy, Schultz has served as a steady, guiding hand for Northwest. Together, they’ve propelled Northwest to its best season in more than a decade.
Schultz was reminiscent of his time at Northwest in the aftermath of the conference meet, thanking his teammates and the community for their combined endless support. Contrastingly, Austin, who’s just 18 years old, expressed excitement about the future and said he expects to be in the Olympics by the time his senior year winds down.
What the long-term future holds for either athlete is to be determined, but their immediate future resides in Pittsburg, Kansas, where each athlete will compete in nationals March 8-9. While the duo ultimately did everything they set out to do at the conference meet, Austin still sees nationals as an opportunity to take care of unfinished business.
“Oh man, I’m very excited,” Austin said. “This is just the start of my freshman year. I still got nationals in two weeks, so I can see what I can do there … Coach (Masters) told me, he said, ‘Don’t go too hard. Just give them a little bit and save it for nationals.’ We’ll see what I can do there.”