Katam, Schnell qualify for NCAA East Regionals
By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Ashley Schnell and Paul Katam delivered history to the UNCG track program on Thursday and proved in the process that original plans don't always have to stand.
When NCAA East Regional bids were announced shortly after lunch, Schnell became the first woman in UNCG history to earn a spot in an NCAA regional in any outdoor track event. In her case, it's the 5,000 meters, in which she whacked an absurd 85 seconds off a school record that had stood for a decade. She joins Katam, who qualified in the 10,000 on the men's side only a few months after sitting and stewing in an embassy 7,748 miles from campus.
Both athletes will compete next week at Indiana University in search of places in the NCAA championships, set for next month in Des Moines, Iowa.
Schnell, a specialist in the 1,500, had never run the 5,000 regularly until a few months ago, when coach Linh Nguyen determined she really was closer to qualifying standards at the longer distance despite the relative inexperience.
"We've tried since December to focus on the 5K, which was a bit of a risk because before this year, she was not a 5K runner," Nguyen said. "We took a chance to move her up in an event and figured she could be at a national level in it. I guess we were right."
As befitting a distance runner, Schnell took the honor in stride, suggesting it's a reflection of the UNCG program's overall improvement. Before she arrived as a transfer from Coe College in Iowa in the fall of 2009, no Spartan had run the 5,000 faster than 18 minutes, 10 seconds. Then Schnell blow-torched that number and three others quickly followed.
"It feels pretty good," said Schnell, a music performance major from Omaha, Neb. "It shows that the team is stepping up. Your teammates see it and they want to compete at a higher level. It feels good for me, but it's also good for my teammates."
Schnell posted a 16:35.62 at an event in Raleigh, and that would have been good enough to get her to the East regionals.
Just to make sure, she ran a 16:38 at the prestigious Penn Relays, and that, too, would have done the job.
Katam has come a long way in a short time in any sense of the phrase. A native of Kenya, he intended to arrive with other freshmen last fall, but for reasons that remain unclear to him, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi twice rejected his application for a student visa.
He didn't give up, however, and he didn't ask any questions when his third bid was approved in December. He showed up just as spring classes were starting in early January.
And he was in no position to compete. Nguyen considered redshirting Katam, but he still felt there was a chance of making this a productive semester. And that call turned out to be right, too. As for the future, Katam has the potential to make several return trips to national championship events.
"When he came here, he was out of shape," the coach said, "and he had an indoor time of 15:01 for the 5K. But he started getting more and more fit and in practice one day, we made the decision to enter him in the Penn Relays. He did the 10K in 29:55; his first 5K was 14:57 and the second was 14:58. Only a month or so earlier, he could only run one 5K, and it was 15:01."
Schnell and Katam leave for Bloomington, Ind., on Tuesday. The events are scheduled for May 26-28.
- UNCG -