May 13, 2010
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Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Wednesday, Aug. 12, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2009-10 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — For the Willey’s of Onawa, Iowa, succeeding at the sport of track and field has become a family custom. Steven, a junior at the University of Iowa, emerged from his father Greg’s shadow at West Monona High School and is now making a dent on the Hawkeye leader board.
Greg was a 10-time state qualifier for the Spartans and still holds the 200-meter and long jump records; Steven came along three decades later, advanced to state nine times and holds school-bests in the 400, 800 and 4×400 relay. He erased his dad’s 400 mark, and as a senior, totaled 28 points by himself to lead West Monona to fourth in the Class 1A team standings. Willey was runner-up in the 800 (1:56.65) and 400 (48.94) and third in the 100 (11.62) and 200 (22.83).
That performance in May, 2007, caught the eye of UI assistant men’s track and field coach Joey Woody.
“I was thinking about (attending) smaller schools before the state meet my senior year,” Willey said. “During the state meet I put up some faster times and afterwards coach Woody gave me a call. I already knew of coach Woody — he’s obviously a pretty big track legend and I thought it was a good opportunity to run for that caliber of coach.”
“One thing that intrigued me about Steven is that he ran everything from the 100 to the 800 at a decent level,” Woody said. “I knew there was some ability there; I also knew he didn’t have the greatest facilities to train on. He’s from a small town and I think he trained on cinders for most of his career. That was a huge bonus for us to be able to get someone like that to Iowa.”
If the times Willey has posted this season aren’t impressive enough, consider the path that brought him from a school of just over 200 students in grades 9-12. As a sophomore, Willey qualified for state in one event, the 4×400-meter relay. As a junior he made it to state in the 100, 200, 400 and 4×400, but again missed the finals. As a senior, Willey brought home four medals.
“One thing that intrigued me about Steven is that he ran everything from the 100 to the 800 at a decent level. I knew there was some ability there; I also knew he didn’t have the greatest facilities to train on. He’s from a small town and I think he trained on cinders for most of his career. That was a huge bonus for us to be able to get someone like that to Iowa.”
UI assistant track coach
“I was a little under-developed in high school,” Willey said. “We didn’t really have an actual, regulation track until my senior year. In high school, you only get about two months of training, compared to year-round training here.”
Since coming to the UI, Willey has seen his personal record (PR) times dip as he has ascended past all the runners that had his number in high school.
“He’s put a lot of work in the weight room,” Woody said. “He also began to understand the need for more speed-based workouts. He needed to let go a little bit; he was always cautious, worried that he was going to get injured or strain a hamstring. Once he started to let go of that mentality, things really started to come together. He has some great natural ability speed-wise. Now we’re starting to hone in on his speed, plus his endurance to be able to put it all together.”
Willey, who walked-on to the Hawkeye program, is now one of the top sprinters in the Big Ten Conference. As of May 5, the UI 4×400 relay (which is anchored by Willey) is seventh in NCAA Division I and first in the Big Ten with a time of 3:05.73. In the open 400, Willey is tied for 23rd nationally and second in the league at 46.31 — 0.34-seconds behind Thomas Murdaugh of Ohio State.
“That shows how much potential we have in the relay,” Willey said. “I think we can go 3:03 this year and that’s our goal. The open 400 and the 4×4 are completely different experiences. There is so much camaraderie in the relay and our guys have become so close.”
When the Hawkeyes placed second at the Drake Relays with their season-best 3:05.73 clocking, Patrick Richards led off, Chris Barton was second, Erik Sowinski was third and Willey anchored. Barton and Willey are juniors; Richards and Sowinski are sophomores.
“I was lead-off leg my first 2 ½ years and then I got put on the anchor spot during outdoors,” Willey said. “It’s a great place to be. There is no greater feeling than bringing the stick home and crossing the line in first.”
The order of the 4×400 relay personnel isn’t the only thing changing with the Hawkeye men’s track and field program. In 2008, Iowa was eighth at the Big Ten indoor and outdoor conference championships; the Hawkeyes were ninth during indoor and placed seventh outdoors in 2009. This March the UI leaped into fifth place on the indoor standings and now…
“It’s just fun being on a good team,” Willey said. “My freshman and sophomore years we were kind of toward the bottom of the Big Ten. Indoors we had a real break-through and got fifth and that was just huge. Right now we’re contending for the (outdoor) championship on paper. We have a good chance to go out and get it and next year is looking even brighter when we’re hosting the Big Ten outdoor championships.”
“I want to make it to nationals in the 400 and the 4×4 and try to get in the top 8 to be an All-American in both events.”
UI junior 400 runner
Willey, who also participated in cross country and basketball in high school, is majoring in interdepartmental studies with an interest in business. His father was a decathlete at the University of South Dakota who went on to coach women’s track and field for the Coyotes. Steven isn’t thinking about the working world yet — there is still much to conquer on the track. The goals have escalated after getting his first taste of medal success at the conference level during the indoor season (Willey was runner-up in the 400 in 47.48 and the Hawkeyes were second in the 4×400 in 3:12).
“I want to make it to nationals in the 400 and the 4×4 and try to get in the top 8 to be an All-American in both events,” Willey said. “The U.S. championships are in Des Moines this year, so I want to qualify in the 400 there, too. Those are pretty high goals, but that’s what I want to do this year.”
Woody didn’t expect to see low 46-second times from Willey this early in his career. The coach shares a goal for Willey to become an All-American and thinks a clocking in the low 44-range is attainable.
“If he continues to progress and stays healthy, he could potentially make the final at the NCAA championships and be an All-American this year,” Woody said. “It’s exciting for me; Steven came in as a recruited walk-on and now he’s a scholarship athlete and leading our program in the long sprints.”
The Hawkeyes will compete at the Big Ten championships May 14-16 in Bloomington, Ind., followed by the NCAA West Region Preliminary Round in Austin, Texas, from May 27-29. The NCAA championships are June 9-12 in Eugene, Ore.