Track Pits NAIA Stars Against NCAA

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ASHLAND, Ore. — For almost every sport, scheduling is pretty simple. If you’re an NAIA football player, you’re almost exclusively playing against other NAIA schools. The same goes for basketball, baseball, pretty much every sport except for track and field. In track, the top athletes frequently get the chance to compete against NCAA Division One athletes at some of the nation’s top meets.

“We’re governed by the stopwatch and the tape measure,” said SOU track coach Grier Gatlin, “so if you can run a four-minute mile, it doesn’t matter if you do it at Southern Oregon or the University of Oregon, if somebody wants to get a good mile race, you’re going to be in that race.”

So while an NAIA linebacker will probably never get the chance to sack a Pac-12 quarterback, a small school runner like Eric Avila, who has met the qualifying standards, can run a race against a dozen DI athletes.

“When I was warming up there was a lot of, I call it dagger eyes,” said Avila, “when you’re getting for a race everybody’s kind of looking at each other with a hungry, don’t talk to me attitude, and I noticed no one is taking notice of me.”

There’s also a great amount of parity in college track. In football or basketball, the top programs have the resources to load up their teams with the top athletes. It’s a different story for track and field.

“Men’s baseball and men’s and women’s track and field at the collegiate level are the worst scholarshipped sports in regards to amount of total scholarships to amount of athletes that participate in those respective sports,” said Gatiln.

“If you’re one of the top 500-600 quarterbacks in the country, someone is going to give you a full ride scholarship. If you’re one of the top 500-600 800 meter runners in the country, there’s not going to be a scholarship for you.”

That allows coaches like Gatlin to recruit the really good, but not quite elite, high school athletes and develop them to the point that they are competing at a DI level.

“You’ll get faster guys at smaller schools and sometimes you’ll just find those diamonds in the rough,” said Jonz Olander.

“It’s completely objective,” said Gatlin. “For example, leading our conference right now is 7′ 2.5″. Name a Pac-12 school that wouldn’t want that guy on a team, none. It just so happened that’s how it worked, just kind of slipped through the cracks and got there.”

All those factors mean when runners from small schools want to prove they are the best, they’ll have the chance to, and the stopwatch on their side to back them up.