Track prepares for Big Sky this weekend

The Big Sky Conference is one of the top 10 track-and-field conferences in the NCAA. With his young teams making headway in the tough Big Sky, Portland State track-and-field head coach Tony Veney is anticipating even more of his student-athletes will qualify for the conference meet at the University of Oregon Division 1 scoring meet in Eugene this weekend.

“We’re going to try and qualify three or four more athletes,” Veney said. “A few are on the bubble.”

Veney, in his second year as head coach, has had only one full year to recruit, but his efforts are paying off.

“It’s a very young team,” he said, “but that’s what happens when you’re a new coach. It hasn’t been all fun and games. My mission statement coming in was to impact the Big Sky Conference as best as we can.”

And it appears that’s exactly what the Vikings are doing. Veney’s team will only lose three track athletes from the women’s team and eight from the men’s teams.

The Viking women are led by jumpers Keisha Harvey, a senior, and junior Lisa Gunderson, the first two Big Sky indoor champs in Portland State’s five seasons in the conference. Gunderson was also the first Big Sky Conference women’s indoor athlete of the week in PSU’s history.

“She’s consistent and hard-working,” Veney said. “Being talented requires a work ethic.”

Ena Shemi, who dropped below 12 seconds in the 100 meters at last Saturday’s meet in Eugene, is looking good for the conference meet. The sophomore also runs the 200 meter and anchors the relay teams.

Senior Jenny Rogers’ time in the 5000 meters is excellent, says Veney, considering the Big Sky is strongest in distance events. Rogers has the 20th best time in the West Region this season.

The Vikings have been a perennial road team because there is no track on campus or in the Portland area. “The fact that we don’t have a home track is a testament to our recruiting style and our beautiful campus,” Veney said. “Student-athletes come to PSU because of the coaching, academics and the commitment the university has to fielding a strong athletics program. Most of the young people we’re recruiting are from Oregon, and we have athletes that are prepared to collectively sacrifice for the team.”

On the men’s side, Veney has a collection of athletes who have already qualified for the Big Sky meet May 14-17.

Junior Ryan Brown, PSU’s first-ever Big Sky track athlete of the week and the school’s indoor record-holder in the long jump, is the reigning Big Sky indoor champion. Brown either won or took second in the four meets he competed in during the indoor season.

Veney is also expecting more good things from senior Anthony Robinson, a sprinter. Last year, Robinson had the 16th fastest time in the indoor 400 meters, but finished sixth in the conference championships. In last year’s Big Sky Conference outdoor championships, Robinson entered with the 17th fastest time, but finished third.

“Nobody gets up for the Big Sky more than Anthony,” Veney said.

Veney, an assistant coach at the University of Oregon for three years before taking the job at PSU in 2001, attracted Tim Overfield, a top runner for the Ducks, to PSU. Overfield is now the PSU record-holder in the 400-meter hurdles and he has the seventh-best 400-meter hurdle time in the West Region.

“He knows me, and he knows how tough it is,” Veney said.

The Vikings finished last in the conference in both the indoor and outdoor track-and-field seasons last year, and Veney’s tired of being in the cellar.

“The trick is identifying where we can be successful,” Veney said.

The Big Sky is strongest in distance, then sprints, hurdles, jumps and throws, and has close to 60 West Region qualifiers. Knowing that has allowed the team to develop success in other areas.

“If the 800 meters is soft, we recruit that,” Veney said.

Veney stresses academics for his student-athletes, and the Big Sky all-academic team featured 22 PSU track-and-field and cross-country students last year.

“We take pride in that,” Veney said. “It’s a balance of family, faith, athletics, academics and personal life. Performance is great, but the main thing is – just compete!”