April 19, 2016
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Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Wednesday, July 29, 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 2015-16 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.
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Steady improvement in high school allowed Carter Lilly to participate in track at the University of Iowa. Consistency in college has turned him into one of the top middle distance runners in the country.
In just his second outdoor appearance of the season April 16, Lilly, a sophomore, moved to second on the Hawkeyes’ all-time list in the 800-meter run. He finished runner-up to Mississippi sophomore Craig Engels at the Texas Invitational in Austin, Texas, with a time of 1-minute, 47.32-seconds. That ranks fifth in the Big Ten Conference, seventh in the West Region, and 13th nationally.
It is the latest highlight for someone who had a successful beginning to the sport, yet pedestrian results compared to Division I scholarship runners.
Lilly won a Drake Relays 800-meter title as a senior at Sioux City East (Iowa) High School, but a gold medal at the state meet eluded him. Despite being a two-time runner-up in Class 4A (the largest class in Iowa), Lilly’s progress intrigued Joey Woody, UI director of track and field.
As a sophomore in high school, Lilly was 19th at state in the 800 in 2:00.14. As a junior he was second in 1:54.61. As a senior he was runner-up again in 1:51.52.
“I always wanted to be a Division I athlete but I didn’t think it would be in track,” Lilly said.
Lilly’s father, Kevin, helped him contact Woody.
Lilly never wavered on attending the University of Iowa, even if athletics wasn’t in the equation. He is majoring in human physiology and leaning toward attending dental school.
“I was planning on coming here either way,” said Lilly, a walk-on. “I was going to go here for academics and if I liked track, I would keep doing it and if I didn’t, I could always quit. But I loved it.”
In his first outdoor meet of the season at the Baldy Castillo Invitational on March 19 in Tempe, Arizona, Lilly ran the 800 in 1:49. It ranked sixth all-time in Hawkeye history at the time; the top spot on Iowa’s 800 list is occupied by Erik Sowinksi, who ran 1:45.90 in 2012.
“I told Erik Sowinski that Carter Lilly was going to probably break his school records before he was done,” UI assistant coach Jason Wakenight said. “That’s how good (Lilly) is. I can see Carter Lilly having every mid-distance record at the University of Iowa.”
In his first two indoor seasons, Lilly posted back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the 600-meter run at the Big Ten Championships (1:18.37 in 2015, 1:17.43 in 2016). His preliminary time of 1:17.34 this season is second all-time in Iowa history behind — you guessed it — Sowinski (1:16.91).
When Lilly won the 800 at Baldy Castillo, he also assured himself a spot in the NCAA West Preliminary Round from May 26-28 in Lawrence, Kansas. In 2015, a time of 1:48.88 qualified for the NCAA Championships out of the West Preliminary.
“My ideal race would be to take it out hard, go to the front, and don’t look back. This year I have run right to front right away and I don’t worry about having to deal with anyone else in the race. I like to take it out around 52 (seconds for the first 400 meters) and try to keep going.”
“My biggest goal is to run 1:47.5 and hopefully make the (2016) Olympic Trials,” said Lilly, who bettered that mark by 0.18 on April 16. “That would be a cool experience. I want to score and medal in the Big Ten and make it to Eugene (Eugene, Oregon is site of the NCAA Championships).”
The biggest asset Wakenight sees in Lilly is consistency. While many runners post a fast time here or there, Lilly remains steady and reliable.
“Every time he shows up on the track you know something good is going to happen,” Wakenight said. “I have never been nervous about whether or not he was ready to perform or if he was going to compete to the best of his ability.”
In Sowinski-like style, Lilly is comfortable charging early to the front of the pack. If opponents want to defeat Lilly, they better be ready to go from the gun.
“My ideal race would be to take it out hard, go to the front, and don’t look back,” Lilly said. “This year I have run right to front right away and I don’t worry about having to deal with anyone else in the race. I like to take it out around 52 (seconds for the first 400 meters) and try to keep going.”
Lilly’s aggressive race mindset might have developed by playing football, his favorite sport growing up. He also played basketball, but his first love was the gridiron.
“I liked hitting people,” Lilly said.
But he quickly discovered that 5-foot-9, 160-pound cornerbacks aren’t in high demand at the Division I level. After he qualified for the state track meet as a sophomore, Lilly also quickly realized the magic of competing on Drake’s blue oval.
Still, his love affair with track was a work in progress.
“When I made it to state I was actually like, ‘Ugh, I have to run for a couple more weeks,'” Lilly said. “But it was cool experience. I thought if I could make it there as a sophomore, if I focused on track, I could probably do some good things.”
As a junior in high school he would return home after basketball practice and log miles on a treadmill. His dedication to running increased as a prep senior. In 2014, Lilly won the high school boys’ 800 run at the Drake Relays in 1:54.62 — nearly five seconds faster than his seventh-place finish at Drake the previous year.
College training was bound to lead him to even greater heights. At Sioux City East, Lilly practiced track maybe three months out of the year. Now he is at it year-round.
“I am confident in myself,” Lilly said. “I know I have trained as hard as I can and done everything I can. As long as I go out there and run my race and do all I can do, I know I will put myself in good position to, if not win the race, run a good time.”
Like most runners, Lilly has overcome an occasionally nick here and there. Generally he likes where he is aerobically. He has a solid base and feels stronger and faster than ever before.
Those features will come in handy Saturday when he runs the 600 at the Musco Twilight on the Francis X. Cretzmeyer Track in Iowa City. Because next to Lilly at the starting line will be the indoor American record holder at 600 meters named Erik Sowinski.