The Maneater

Schweizer, Cunningham highlight an otherwise grim SEC championships for the Tigers

Karissa Schweizer and Ja’Mari Ward will be Missouri’s lone representatives at the NCAA championships in March.

Maneater File Photo

By the time Karissa Schweizer received the baton from redshirt freshman Karina Liz, viewers could have been forgiven for thinking that Missouri had no chance to win the women’s distance medley relay.

Mizzou entered Schweizer’s one-mile anchor leg in ninth place, roughly 11 seconds behind the leading Vanderbilt Commodores. But the Tiger senior demonstrated just how dominant she can be at her craft, finishing her mile in 4:25.56 and emerging six seconds ahead of the second-place team.

Had the split been counted as its own separate mile race, it would have been the fastest indoor mile in NCAA history and the second collegiate record broken by Schweizer this season.

The race was Missouri’s last event of the weekend-long Southeastern Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships in College Station, Texas. The women’s DMR was one of the Tigers’ three first-place finishes in the meet, joining Schweizer’s successful defense of her 2017 title in the 3,000-meter run on Saturday and redshirt senior Megan Cunningham’s 5,000-meter victory on Sunday.

Outside of the three conference titles, however, Missouri’s weekend results were much less exceptional. In the overall team standings for the meet, the women finished ninth out of 14 teams, while the men took last place out of 13 for the second straight year.

The Tigers also failed to add any names to their list of NCAA championship qualifiers, leaving Schweizer and sophomore jumper Ja’Mari Ward as the only Mizzou athletes set to return to College Station in two weeks to compete on the national stage. The top 16 athletes or top 12 relay teams from each event are invited to the championship based on the best regular-season performances.

Missouri started slow on Saturday afternoon, with none of its athletes qualifying for the meet finals in the men’s weight throw, women’s 60-meter dash or men’s 400-meter dash.

After running the 60-meter dash in 7.36 seconds, 0.05 seconds short of the school record and 32nd best nationally at the time at the Missouri Collegiate Challenge on Feb. 16, junior Maya Cody had her sights set on the school record and NCAA qualification. Instead, her time increased to 7.46 seconds, placing her fifth in the preliminary heat and bringing an end to her indoor season.

In the men’s long jump, Ward, who set a school record of his own by jumping 7.97 meters at the Missouri Collegiate Challenge, stumbled to a fifth-place finish with 7.75 meters. He will still qualify for the NCAA championships by virtue of his 7.97-meter mark, which remains tied for the country’s fifth best in 2017-18.

After freshman Arielle Mack and junior Landon Cuskelly failed to record scores in the women’s long jump and men’s high jump, respectively, redshirt junior Gabi Jacobs finished eighth in the women’s shot put with 15.06 meters. However, both she and sophomore Emily Stauffer, who finished 12th with 14.08 meters, performed well below their season highs of 15.54 and 15.53 meters, respectively.

After Missouri failed to crack the top eight in the men’s 800-meter run, women’s 200-meter dash and men’s 3,000-meter run, Schweizer brought an end to Missouri’s Saturday action by setting a meet record in the women’s 3,000, finishing in 9:00.56, about 11 seconds ahead of second place. The time was actually about 20 seconds slower than the NCAA record Schweizer set in the event in New York City on Feb. 3.

“It's an extraordinary [meet] record for Karissa,” head coach Brett Halter said in a press release Saturday. “The way she did it was absolutely remarkable. It was quite an impressive competitive effort.”

On Sunday, junior CeCe Johnson finished ninth in the women’s weight throw with 18.04 meters, an underperformance compared to her season high of 18.88 meters.

Junior Valeria Kostiuk recorded a 1.83-meter jump at the Missouri Collegiate Challenge, putting her in a tie for the Tigers’ program record as well as a tie for 16th in the country at the time, meaning she entered the weekend squarely on the NCAA qualification bubble. With that score unlikely to hold its ranking through a weekend full of conference championship meets around the country, she would almost certainly have to improve to reach nationals.

Instead, Kostiuk finished tied for fourth with 1.80 meters, and by the end of the day, 1.84 meters was the new benchmark score for NCAA qualification. Kostiuk’s three failed attempts from 1.84 meters at the Missouri Collegiate Challenge now loom larger than before, as success on any one of them would have extended her indoor season as well as broken the school record.

Senior Rauno Liitmae and freshman Jason Edwards finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in the heptathlon. Liitmae’s score of 5,573 points moved him into fifth place in Missouri’s program history in the event.

After no top-10 finishes in the men’s shot put or 5000-meter run, the Tigers’ attention turned to the women’s 5,000, where Cunningham captured the title in 15:56.76 by a dominant 24-second margin.

In July 2015, Cunningham spent a week in the hospital after a car crash left her unable to perform any physical activity. Sunday’s achievement was the culmination of a long recovery in which she essentially had to relearn the sport of distance running. She dedicated the victory to her father, who suffered permanent paralysis in all four limbs as a result of the crash.

“I was crying as soon as I crossed the finish line,” Cunningham told ESPN’s John Anderson after the race. “I’m just so happy… everything I’ve done to come back is for [my dad].”

Cunningham’s time left her about 10 seconds shy of NCAA qualification. Schweizer would have been the favorite to win the 5,000-meter race had she competed, but she was held out in anticipation of her rematch with New Mexico sophomore Ednah Kurgat at the NCAA championships. Schweizer edged out Kurgat for first place in the 5,000 at a meet in Boston in December, and their times have stood all season as the top two in the country by far.

After a seventh-place finish in the men’s DMR, Missouri finished its weekend with the women’s race. Redshirt senior Valeska Halamicek, Cody, Liz and Schweizer’s blazing anchor leg led the Tigers to their third SEC title of the meet. The team’s time of 11:08.18 left them about seven seconds short of NCAA qualification.

The qualifiers for the NCAA championships will be announced in a press release Tuesday night. Schweizer is expected to qualify in the mile, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, while Ward will contest the long jump. The rest of the team will be back in action when the outdoor season begins at the Arkansas Spring Invitational from March 23-24.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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