An Iowa track relay team made team history this year. Can they finish among nation's elite?
For Iowa men's track and field and coach Joey Woody, everything starts with high expectations.
They started building toward them in 2014 when Woody was named director of the track and field program.
Today, their current expectations are pretty high: Perennial Big Ten championship contenders and what Woody described as NCAA enough qualifiers that they require a bus to take them all.
Iowa's claimed two of the last three Big Ten titles and will send 10 qualifiers to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, beginning on Wednesday. The Hawkeyes have long been strong in certain events like the 400 meter dash and hurdles, but Woody pinpointed one event that truly highlights a program's strength on the national level: relay races.
"When you have your relays make the national meet, I think that shows what type of team you are," Woody said. "And that when you start to have the precedent of qualifying those relays every single year, it shows the type of depth that you have in your program, and just the overall development and obviously the expectation."
There's no better illustration than Iowa's 4x100 meter relay team that's become a program staple under Woody. They will compete at the national finals for the ninth straight year, a feat that Woody called "unheard of" shortly after they qualified in late May at the NCAA West Regionals.
And there's something to that.
Only Arkansas and Florida have an active streak that long.
Junior Gratt Reed, sophomores Khullen Jefferson and Austin Kresley and freshman Kalil Johnson is this year's final group. They're far from the initial plan at the beginning of the season. In fact, Woody estimates that they've used as many as eight different runners during the season as a result of injuries.
This year's run to Eugene further validates the depth Woody has built in Iowa City.
"We kind of run multiple events," Reed, the third leg of the relay said. "We have guys like myself who can run hurdles, the 200-meter dash, the 4x100 and a lot of other guys in the same position. We just kind of take ourselves and insert into situations and find success."
The first glimpse of what Iowa's 4x100 team could've been came in early April when they ran to a blistering 39.03 second time and the fourth-fastest in the NCAA at the time. The leadoff leg then was sophomore Kalen Walker, the school's record holder in the 60-meter and 100-meter dash.
However, a season-ending injury shortly after left the Hawkeyes without one of their top runners. Jefferson, the anchor, also had a brief stint out of the lineup. With their first and last legs out, Woody went through a lineup re-shuffle.
However, the goal of qualifying for the outdoor championships never wavered.
"It's kind of the same thing with football and that next man in mentality," Woody said. "The expectation is still the same, doesn't matter who the four are, we still expect to make the national finals."
Woody's tabbed freshman hurdler Kalil Johnson to replace Walker as leadoff. He got some prior experience running for Iowa's B-relay team early in the season but admittedly there were some jitters when he began running with the top team.
"I remember my first time where it was kind of like 'just get the stick around,'" Johnson said.
According to Woody, the three main ingredients for executing a functional 4x100 relay are continuity, rhythm and trust. How did Iowa find all three? Two main elements contributed to that.
One part is Woody's coaching philosophy. He decides the relay order and designates when/where in the exchange zone where handoffs are made, taking the thought process out of the athletes' hands mid-race so they only focus on running. Then the runners themselves put in countless hours practicing on the track and building chemistry off the track.
And as far as bringing along the freshman Johnson, second leg Austin Kresley said the message was simple: don't try to play "hero ball".
"Everyone's bought in, no one wants to be 'the guy,'" Kresley said. "We're all bought in as a team. We've won the Big Ten a few years in a row so everyone knows they gotta do their part. And everyone does their part, we get trophies at the end of it. No one's going out there saying 'Hey, I've got win this', everyone just got to do their part to win this thing. It's not just one person."
The Hawkeyes relay team's found their stride in the last several weeks. They placed second at the Drake Relays, helping the men's team to their first title there since 2018 and followed that up with a second place finish at the Big Ten championships in mid-May.
Still, there's plenty of room for improvement. Their 39.56 time at NCAA West Regionals placed them as the No. 23 seed nationally out of 24 teams. The days and weeks leading up to Eugene were focused on shedding as many seconds as possible off their time.
"Big Ten's we came up with a silver, which we wanted gold but we just got to keep working on the handouts going into nationals," Khullen Jefferson said. "So I feel like we can just get each other's chemistry down and trust each other, I think actually make the final and score some points for the team."
Qualifying for the NCAA championships is one thing, scoring points (a Top 8 finish) is the next step in the growing expectations for Iowa's track and field team. Their seeding suggests they're long shots for a top finish but Woody's message to the team is that the toughest obstacle, qualifying for the finals, is done.
Now it's time to reset because every team has an equal opportunity.
"Once you get there, anybody can score because it's that elite," Woody said.
Who are all of the Hawkeyes competing?
The NCAA Outdoor Championships will be held from Wednesday-Saturday at the University of Oregon. Broadcasts of the events will take place on the ESPN family of networks. Here's the full list of men's participants:
- Josh Braverman, senior, 110-meter hurdles
- Armando Bryson, sophomore, 4x400 meter relay
- James Carter Jr., Junior, long jump and triple jump
- Nik Curtiss, senior, shot put
- Julien Gillum, junior, 400-meter hurdles and 4x400 meter relay
- Spencer Gudgel, sophomore, 4x400 meter relay
- Khullen Jefferson, sophomore, 4x100 meter relay
- Jordan Johnson, sophomore, discus
- Kalil Johnson, freshman, 4x100 meter relay
- Austin Kresley, sophomore, 4x100 meter relay
- Gratt Reed, junior, 110-meter hurdles and 4x100 meter relay
- Austin West, sophomore, decathlon and 4x400 meter relay
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.