UGA track and field teams have ‘incredible day’ at NCAA East Prelims

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Georgia track and field program had an unprecedented 12 qualifiers for the NCAA championships during the NCAA East Prelims on Friday.

Freshman Shaunae Miller (women’s 400-meter dash), junior Johnathan Smith (men’s 100), junior Megan Malasarte (women’s 800), sophomore Charles Grethen and Kisean Smith (men’s 800), sophomore Drew Branch (men’s 400 hurdles), senior Leslie Boozer (women’s steeplechase), sophomore Morgann Leleux (women’s pole vault), junior Caleb Whitener and sophomore Nick Vena (men’s shot put) and senior Saniel Atkinson-Grier and freshman Leontia Kallenou (women’s high jump) all guaranteed their spots at the final round of the NCAA Championships.

Georgia also had a pair of team members advance to quarterfinal rounds in their respective events. They will compete again on Saturday at the East prelims.

On the first day of the meet, freshman Chanice Porter also punched her ticket to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., on June 5-8 by taking 10th in the long jump on Thursday.

On Saturday, freshman Freya Jones opens the field events in the women’s javelin at noon. The women’s 4×100 relay team is set to compete in the quarterfinal round at 6 p.m.

“We had an incredible day and one that sets us up well for Eugene,” Georgia assistant coach Pat Cunniff said in a news release. “We had athletes in all phases of the sport qualify which shows how well-rounded our teams are right now. I am excited that everyone is performing so well at this point in the season and this should bode well for our team in a couple weeks.”

Bulldog assistant coach Jon Stuart was also satisfied with Georgia’s performance on Friday.

“We really took care of business today,” Stuart said in a news release. “We qualified a great number of our team to the NCAA Championships. Once Kisean qualified in the 800, the rest of the team just took off! We just got on a roll and couldn’t stop.”

The top 12 finishers in either in the quarterfinal or semifinal rounds (depending on the event) at the East Prelims or West Prelims (Austin, Texas) advance to the finals of the NCAA Championships in Eugene.

After recording the nation’s fourth-fastest 400 time in the prelims, Miller returned to register the country’s second-fastest time in the quarterfinals. She won her heat by more than a second with a 51.72 and will now be gunning to sweep the 400 after winning the 2013 NCAA indoor crown in the event.

Johnathan Smith had the fifth fastest 100 time in his heat and the 11th best overall in the quarterfinals to advance to NCAAs. He finished in 10.30 as five of 12 sprinters who qualified in the East Prelims were from the SEC.

Malasarte, who was seventh in the 800 finals at the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships, qualified automatically after clocking a 2:07.28 to take second in her heat.

In the men’s 800, two Bulldogs locked down their invitations to the University of Oregon by finishing in the top 12. Kisean Smith arrived at the meet tied for 87th on the national list with a career-best time of 1:50.05. On Friday, the Snellville native sped around for a personal-best time of 1:49.80 to be second in his heat and earn a trip to the NCAA Championships in his first season.

Grethen was also second in his heat with a time of 1:51.72 to advance in the 800. This will mark his first trip to NCAAs after transferring from Texas State.

“Both of the 800s were exciting and nerve-racking,” Cunniff said. “Charles ran a great race and positioned himself perfectly in his race. Kisean shocked the world with what he did after sneaking through on the rail to qualify. (Kisean) has to be one of the lowest ranked people in either of the Prelims to qualify. Finally, Megan showed what great experience she has in races in this level and how strong a runner she is.”

Branch clocked his second-fastest time of the year in the 400 hurdles to also earn his first trip to the NCAA meet in an individual event. Branch had a time of 51.68 to take second in his heat.

Boozer, who set a school record in the steeplechase to take second at the SEC Championships, finished second in her heat in Greensboro with the second-best time of her career. A team captain for the Lady Bulldog cross country team, Boozer finished her laps in 10:05.47 and will be advancing to the NCAA Championships during her final opportunity outdoors.

“Leslie had an outstanding showing,” said Cunniff. “She stalked the leader the whole race and had a strong second-place finish as several runners tried to catch up to her at the end. This is a great accomplishment for a person who has shown what hard work and dedication can lead to in our program. I am very proud of her performance tonight.”

Leleux had one of the smoothest routes to her second consecutive NCAA Championships. Passing on her first three heights, Leleux cleared 13 feet, 5 ¼ inches on her opening attempt and that is all it took to clinch her spot. The New Iberia, La., was runner-up at both the 2012 NCAA indoor and outdoor meets and is the two-time defending SEC outdoor champion.

The final four Bulldog qualifiers came from the men’s shot put and the women’s high jump. Vena exploded for the fourth-best shot put throw in school history (63-9) to win the competition and move into a tie for the second-best effort in the nation this year. His longest throw came on his sixth and final attempt after he was tied with Buffalo’s Jonathan Jones going into that round.

Vena’s teammate Caleb Whitener had the fourth-longest toss in the competition with a mark of 60-10.50 on his fifth attempt. This will be Whitener’s second try at the NCAA Outdoor Championships after also competing last year.

A pair of Lady Bulldogs reached the height they needed in the high jump to advance. The mark that ended up being needed to qualify was 5-11.25 and Atkinson-Grier cleared it on her first try while Kallenou soared over the height on her third and final try. This will be Kallenou’s first NCAA Championships after she redshirted the indoor campaign. Atkinson-Grier tied for sixth last year for a First Team All-America certificate.

Both sophomore Tynia Gaither and Smith also qualified for the quarterfinal round in their 200 races. Gaither, who missed out on a trip to Eugene in the 100 by less than a hundredth of a second earlier in the night, finished third in her 200 heat to automatically qualify with a 23.64. Gaither is set to race again at 7:35 p.m. on Saturday.

Smith was the runner-up in the opening heat of the men’s 200 after clocking a 20.88. He will race in the 200 quarterfinals at 7:50 p.m. on Saturday.

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Georgia’s odds to win the national championship are now 8/1, according to Bovada. They were 14/1 a week ago.

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