Friday, February 27, 2009

Knapp: Men's track championships for the seniors

Issue date: 2/27/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

For the men's track team, last week's Jack Skoog Open was for their coach.

But competing at this weekend's Mid-American Conference Championship, that's for their seniors.

The meet begins at 10 a.m. today and continues Saturday, hosted by Kent State.

Today, the team will try to help them end their careers on a good note, something head coach Jim Knapp has stressed at the beginning of each season.

"I would do anything for the seniors," Knapp said. "They've earned it. They've paid their dues. It's their opportunity to lead this team."

Assistant coach Troy Irvine remembers the first thing Knapp said when addressing the team at the beginning of this indoor season.

"He stood up in front of the guys and said, 'Each season is for the seniors. We're here as athletes so they have something to remember,'" Irvine said.

Knapp said that loyalty is a two-way street - to get it, you must earn it.

"It's a big thing to me," he said of being loyal. "A huge thing. We start to cultivate that when the freshman come in and it carries through until they're seniors."

The Chippewas will be one senior down, as 2008 All-American Abraham Mach will be unable to run due to a hamstring injury that has been acting up for two weeks and also forced him to sit out last week's meet.

Last Friday, Mach expressed his frustration with the injury, saying he was working on it daily, not ruling out the possibility of defending his title in the 800-meter run.

On Wednesday, Knapp ruled him out.

"He's been banging his head against the wall," Knapp said. "His injuries just weren't getting better. It was time to put him on ice and get him better for the outdoor season."

Mach's absence will force the team's other groups to maintain their high level of play, most notably the pole vaulters and throwers, who have come on strong as of late.

Junior pole vaulter Marcus Briedinger has been encouraging his teammates to look at the conference listings on the Web site.

"I tell them to take their seeds and beat them," Briedinger said. "There is unlimited potential at the MAC meet. We do our part and we'll see what happens."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Coach Jim Knapp soaks in moment during his last home men's track meet

Issue date: 2/23/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

During his final home meet inside the Indoor Athletic Center at the Jack Skoog Track, Jim Knapp took the opportunity do something he had never done before.

Early in the meet, just as the healthy crowd of alumni that attended was forming around the track, Knapp emerged from the stands with his wife, Mavin, and grandchildren McKenzie and Ian, 11 and 6 years old, respectively.

Knapp, hand-in-hand with his grandchildren, weaved his way around the track, giving the youngsters a close-up look at the athletes.

"I had the most important people in my life right there with me," Knapp said. "It was the last opportunity I'll have to do that I so seized upon it. It was a very special moment."

It was also a special moment for his athletes, who, in front of a capacity crowd that Knapp said was the biggest he's seen at the track, put on one of the best performances of the season, with five individual winners on the day.

"I think that played on everyone's heart strings a little bit," junior pole vaulter Marcus Briedinger said of the occasion. "We all wanted to go out there and give him a memorable last meet."

Briedinger won the pole vault by clearing a season-best 16 feet, 5.25 inches. Other winners on the day for the Chippewas were sophomore Oz Lifshitz in the long jump (22 feet, 4.5 inches), sophomore George Flanner in the shot put (53 feet, 6.25 inches), freshman David Ashcraft in the 400-meter run (50.04 seconds), and sophomore Nick Agosti in the 600-meter run (1:22:04.)

It was Lifshitz first competition in the long jump and Flanner's career-best throw.

"I feel good in terms of where we are," Knapp said, commenting on this weekend's Mid-American Conference Championships in Kent State.

Briedinger said the team is together and ready for a run at a MAC championship.

"(Friday) greased up the gears for the MAC meet," Briedinger said. "I feel like we had the most team chemistry than we've had all year. It's setting up real nice."

During the event, Knapp was honored with an award by Athletics Director Dave Heeke, commemorating his service with the school.

Knapp accepted the award with his family, and shortly afterwards alumni and the team gathered around him for a picture, as "Thank you Coach Knapp for 24 great years!" was displayed on the scoreboard in the background.

"I've never felt so humbled in my life," Knapp said. "It's just overwhelming."

Friday, February 20, 2009

'It's starting to hit me now'

Track coach Jim Knapp will retire after season, honored today

Issue date: 2/20/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Jim Knapp says a lot of things.

At the track he says, "Hurry every chance you get." At his house, he says, "You can stay here."

Wednesday afternoon, the veteran track coach said nothing as he sat in his office, slightly reclined in his chair. He lifted the glasses from above his ears and was at loss for words while thinking about this being his final season.

"I don't think it's hit me yet," he answered. "But I've wondered about that."

Knapp then paused for a few seconds while fiddling his left hand on the chair's armrest before admitting, "As we approach Friday, it's going to become a little more obvious."

He then fell silent for another short period of time before continuing on in the deep, stern voice that has guided the men's track team for 24 years.

Fourty-eight hours before today's Jack Skoog Open, Jim Knapp's spring retirement finally sank in.

Knapp will be honored pre-meet in what promises to be a packed Jack Skoog Track inside the Indoor Athletic Complex, with his family, friends, and more than 75 of his former athletes in attendance.

Irregular route

He guided CMU to four Mid-American Conference Championships and won eight Coach of the Year awards. His plaque also hangs in three Halls of Fame.

But it is something that Knapp does not have that makes his 37-year coaching career so impressive.

After a college career that began in 1968 as a linebacker at Ferris State, Knapp graduated with a master's degree from Michigan State before joining Jack Finn's Northwood University football team as an assistant coach.

"That was my life," he said of football. When he was a kid growing up in Big Rapids, Knapp remembers sitting at the top of FSU's Taggart Field, dreaming of competing on the field below.

"I told myself that some day I was going to be out there," he said. "It wasn't, 'I hope,' it was 'I know.'"

One day, Finn pulled him aside and told him he was going to be the school's first-ever track coach.

"Never been on a track team, never coached track or anything," Knapp said of his qualifications at the time.

"I was excited," he said. "I was young and arrogant enough to think I could do anything."

Knapp read any book he could get a hold of, attended clinics and talked with anybody and everybody. He found a mentor back at his hometown college, fellow FSU Hall-of-Famer Ray Helsing. Although he didn't compete in track, Helsing met Knapp in the FSU athletic department.

Today, much like Helsing did, Knapp has mentored a large group of college and high school coaches, including MSU head coach and CMU alum Walt Drenth, Knapp's first assistant coach.

"I learned a lot of things from him," Drenth said. "I think everything that makes a coach a great one, Jim exhibited."

Four years later, after Knapp started Northwood's track and field program from scratch, the team won conference champions. Nine years later, a broom closet in the corner of CMU's Finch Fieldhouse called for his occupancy.

Becoming a Chippewa

Former Athletics Director Dave Keilitz signed Knapp as the head coach of the Chippewas in 1985.

Throwing coach Larry Levine still recalls the 2003 MAC outdoor championship victory against Eastern Michigan. It was a meet that saw the program finally run past the Eagles, which had previously ruled the conference. After the meet, the team surrounded Knapp and honored his first win by shaving his head.

"He got scorned out there," Levine said, laughing. "Man, he looked like a lamb."

Two years later, the 2005 squad, dubbed by many as the best team in MAC history, swept both indoor and outdoor track, and that fall, Craig Fuller's men's cross country team took the conference as well.

Two athletes that surrounded the 2005 team were in the track bay Wednesday, one watching runners and the other running.

Assistant coach Matt Kaczor graduated as a distance runner in 2004 and attended most of the team's meets that year. He said the team could not be stopped.

"They would do anything just not to let each other down," Kaczor said of his senior year. "It was great how much they cared about each other."

Knapp said the team had everything it needed to win, including confidence.

"There was no doubt in my mind we were going to win," he said.

Johnie Drake, one of the Chippewas five All-Americans that season, crouched in the middle of a pack of five sprinters, all waiting for Knapp's signal above.

"Ready ... set." Knapp said, standing only a few feet away.

And then whack! Knapp slammed the right arm of a life-sized, metal piece of track equipment.

"It's better than having that gun powder in here," he said.

Drake, who lives and works in the area, often trains at the track. He has competed in national and worldwide competitions, and will be trying out for the U.S. National Team soon. He will run Friday's open as an unattached runner.

"I want to put on a great performance," Glenn said. "With the alumni there and all, and to represent Coach Knapp and let him go out with style."

From Finch Fieldhouse, which he feels he can now nickname "The Dungeon," Knapp moved an office in the newly-constructed IAC nearly one decade ago.

A father figure

"In track," Knapp explains, "You are a lot closer to the athletes. ... A lot of guys will call me Dad [tonight]."

Knapp once told junior Greg Pilling that a scholarship awaited him when he returned from a two-year missionary he embarked on after high school.

Earlier this year, first-year assistant coach Troy Irvine drove down from Maine after he had been offered the job by Knapp over the phone.

Irvine went straight to the track, then to Knapp's house to meet the coach in person.

"It was my first day here," Irvine said. "He said, 'Here's a bed, you can stay here until you get yourself situated.'"

Knapp said the relationships he made with his athletes are unforgettable.

"To watch these kids blossom and mature in four or five years, it's an incredible thing," Knapp said. "To be a part of that time span and to be able to affect or impact that is an incredible responsibility and a wonderful opportunity."

Moving on

Late last August, Knapp moved his workspace yet again, from the basement of the IAC into the new track and field offices overlooking the indoor track bay.

His office was mostly bare, only a few half-packed boxes and a transistor radio sat neatly on and around his desk. He looked around and said his "memorabilia box" was in Atlanta, where he will move to be with his wife, Mavin, "To do something else," as he puts it.

Sitting behind an L-shaped maroon desk with a cream top, Knapp talked about how he internally made the decision to retire two years ago, just before Fuller announced his retirement.

"It's extremely important to me that I leave the program in good shape for the future," he said, noting the strong freshman and sophomore classes the Chippewas carry.

In his 35-plus year track career, Knapp has worked under three different administrations at three different locations at CMU.

"It's going to be tough, Friday night," he said about being honored. "There isn't any question about it. I'm very competitive and I'm very emotional."

Approximately 20 minutes later, standing under the track's scoreboard watching some sprinters warm up, someone tugged at the left arm of my coat.

"I think it's starting to hit me now," Knapp said.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Man on a Mission

Issue date: 2/16/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Last January, Greg Pilling had an epiphany.

Months earlier, in the fall of 2007, the junior men's track thrower felt like something was missing. It was evident in his throws, his technique and even in his drive to achieve his Olympic dreams.

Although he diligently abided by a workout plan and technique that made him the third-best distance thrower in Canadian high school history, Pilling changed his philosophy less than 18 months before the 2008 Canadian Olympic trials.

"You can't expect different results without change," Pilling said to himself on a winter day last January, a day to which he credits as the beginning of his Olympic journey.

He revamped his training exercies, practicing a new workout that featured heavier lifting in shorter cycles. He no longer practiced hammer and weight throws - instead, he focused solely on the discus.

Pilling traveled to his hometown of London, Ontario, to train with three-time Olympian Jason Tunks, who competed in consecutive Olympics from Atlanta in 1996 to Athens in 2004.

"Greg is fun to train with," Tunks said in an e-mail to Central Michigan Life. "He takes it seriously and wants to be very good."

The two attended Sir Frederick Banting High School in London, where Tunks owns most of the school's throwing and meet records.

"It was neat getting to throw alongside him," Pilling said of Tunks. "It was nice having that set of eyes on me technically, and he was pretty happy with where my technique was at."

As Pilling began to put his new philosophy to work, he regained his confidence, which was missing from his earlier workouts.

"Before I changed my training, I really didn't have the confidence that I had the chance of making the Olympic team," Pilling said.

"I changed a whole bunch through that experience, made great gains and really gained the confidence that I will be able to make it to the Olympics."

Six months later, in July, Pilling stood alongside his training partner at the Canadian trials in Windsor. But it did not start as he planned, especially after a successful warmup session.

"Once the competition started, my first throw just didn't go well and it got into my head a little bit," he said of fouling on his first two attempts. "It was a pretty stressful situation, I was just focused on getting a legal throw and because of that I had to cut back on my throw [power] and I was worried about things."

On his sixth and final throw, Pilling launched his longest discus of the competition for 53.99 meters, bumping himself into third place, right behind Tunks.

Although the pair finished strong in second and third place, respectively, both Tunks and Pilling missed the Canadian squad after failing to pass the provisional mark required for the trip to Beijing.

A new edition

Months removed from the Olympic trials and almost a year since altering his training regimen, change blanketed the 25-year-old's life yet again in late December.

This time, the change didn't involve repetitions or weights, but rather changing diapers and losing the occasional bit of sleep.

On Dec. 28 2008, Elizabeth Pilling, his wife, gave birth to the couple's first child, Daniel Aiden.

On Sunday, seven-week-old Daniel took his third trip to the track with his father, fascinated with the burning lights and spinning fans above him in the track bay as he rested in his mother's arms.

"Greg's always loved kids and has been excited about being a dad," said Elizabeth Pilling, a CMU alumnus. "Doing this during classes and practice was something that he wanted to do and was willing to do."

Back to competition

This indoor season, the junior is back in a Chippewas uniform for the first time since 2007 after being granted a redshirt by the NCAA last season to train for the Olympics.

"It's an honor for CMU to have an athlete whose competing for the Olympics," said Jim Knapp, head coach. "That's an elite thing."

During the team's quadrangular meet at Eastern Michigan on Jan. 30, Pilling recorded his first win since returning.

"I've been very excited to get back in uniform," Pilling said. "Maybe a little too much on the indoor season, but it's very exciting to get back here."

Knapp said the team looks up to Pilling's maturity, who crams in his duties of being a student-athlete, next to being a husband and father and a member of the student advisory board.

"Greg is all about leadership," Knapp said. "He comes early. He stays late and he's got a tremendous work ethic."

Olympic dreams

Pilling has a lofty goal for 2009.

"The Year of the 360," Pilling said, referring to the the spinning motion a thrower goes through and his goal of throwing 60 meters in each of the throwing events.

Last January, he had an epiphany. Just more than one year later, he has a baby and the renewed confidence that his dreams will become a reality.

"Being in London in 2012 is something I'm definitely planning on," Pilling said about his Olympic expectations in three years.

But as confident Pilling is on his goals, he admits last year he would not make the same statements.

"I didn't think I could, but now I know I can," he said.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Football hires new defensive coach

Issue date: 2/13/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

With more than 30 years of football experience, Steve Stripling has joined the Central Michigan University football staff as an associate head coach.

Stripling, 55, most recently served as the defensive line coach under former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr from 2005-07. Before arriving in Ann Arbor, he also made Big Ten stops at Indiana, Michigan State and Minnesota.

"When you look at his experience, credibility and the great players he's coached throughout the years, there's so many things he brings to the table," said head coach Butch Jones.

Jones said Stripling will work directly with the defensive line, a position he has coached for more than 20 years. He replaces Mike Kowalkowski, who was fired after the season ended. Kowalkowski was responsible for the safeties and special teams.

"I'm very excited about being here," Stripling said. "I've been at some very successful places so I'm just hoping to come and contribute my experience to the team."

Stripling said he has only watched the Chippewas play only a few times on television, but he has followed Jones' career and knows what is expected of the team.

"We're looking for championships here," he said. "A lot of places you go to, you're fighting to be competitive, but we're fighting for championships."

This is the first time the two coaches have worked together. They met years ago through mutual friends, most notably through former CMU head coach Mike Debord, who coached with Stripling while at Michigan.

With the Wolverines, Stripling helped mentor Super Bowl champion linebacker and defensive end, LaMarr Woodley. In his time with Woodley, the All-American won numerous awards, including the Rotary Lombardi Award in 2006, given annually to the nation's top offensive or defensive lineman.

Looking forward to next year's defensive line core, Stripling believes it is a huge advantage to have two starters returning in seniors Larry Knight and Frank Zombo.

"I really feel good about the defensive line," he said. "We're very fortunate because anytime you have that kind of experience, it's a great thing."

In addition to his coaching resume, Stripling has played instrumental roles in recruiting, serving in a recruiting role at three stops in his career.

Jones says the staff will rely on some of Stripling's ties in both Michigan and Indiana, as well as assigning him a specific recruiting area.

"We'll involve him heavily in recruiting," Jones said. "He's a great judge of character and he's got a tremendous eye for talent as well."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mabil cuts MAC-best 5,000 meter

Issue date: 2/9/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

At the beginning of the weekend, Central Michigan distance runner Riak Mabil held the indoor season's conference-best time in the 5,000-meter run.

The junior trimmed almost 21 seconds from his previous season best-time of 15:02.12 at Notre Dame's Meyo Invitational on Friday with a time of 14:43.85. But he now has company at the top.

Sophomore teammate Sammy Kiprotech finished less than 10 seconds behind Mabil, surpassing his previous mark and placing him second in the conference.

Mabil set his original mark on Jan. 17 at Kent State.

The runners placed 19th and 28th this weekend, respectively, which indicated the level of competition the Chippewas faced in South Bend, said coach Jim Knapp.

"It's the most competitive meet we'll see all year," he said. "It was a great opportunity to face some great competition and they had some incredible teams there."

Along with some of the nation's best collegiate athletes, there were post-collegiate athletes training for the next Olympics. In the mile race, five runners finished in less than four minutes, a feat Breidinger called "unbelievable."

Sophomore jumper Oz Lifshitz turned in the team's highest placing of the invitational with a 15.29 meter triple jump that earned him second place.

For the third consecutive week, pole vaulters Mike McGregor and Marcus Breidinger anchored the team. The juniors finished in ninth and 10th place, respectively, with the same finals vault of 4.87 meters.

"They have been very consistent all along," Knapp said of the vaulters.

Briedinger said the meet set a standard for which the team wants to perform.

"We try to compete at the same level everybody else is competing at," he said. "When you're around other vaulters of that caliber, it gets you going."

The team has next weekend off before hosting the Jack Skoog Open on Feb. 20, but Knapp foresees possibly "taking a handful" of guys to a small college event this weekend, hosted by Grand Valley State University.

"Everybody's slightly on a different page," he said. "I'm very cautious because it's a long season."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Men's track takes two of three duals Friday

Chippewas earn top three places in pole vault

Issue date: 2/2/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

In what head coach Jim Knapp called the team's best performance of the year, the Central Michigan University men's track team took two out of three meets in a quad-dual on Friday at Eastern Michigan.

The Chippewas defeated Oakland University, 80-44, and Detroit, 74-57, but lost to host EMU, 83-57.

"We did a good job," Knapp said. "I really thought (the team) brought their 'A-game' and we competed very hard."

Headlining the team's strong performance were four first-place finishes and a team sweep in the pole vault.

Senior Marcell Maxwell and freshman Larry Dawkins II - in his first collegiate race - won the 60-meter dash and the 200-meter dash with times of 6.89 seconds and 22.27 seconds, respectively.

Aside from their victories, the two sprinters performed well across the board. Maxwell finished fourth in the 200-meter (22.72), as Dawkins placed second in the 60-meter (6.91).

"I'm really happy for Marcell," said Knapp. "He's having the best year of his career. To see the success he's having is very nice."

Maxwell believes having the team together as a whole contributed to the effort.

"We were running on all cylinders," Maxwell said. "Having some guys come back from injuries, and with others competing for the first time this season, the team performed great."

Knapp said that it was beneficial to have more people compete than they've had in the past, in terms of participants.

For the second straight week, CMU pole vaulters turned in strong performances. The duo of juniors, Mike McGregor and Marcus Briedinger, along with freshman Joe Jankowski swept the event.

Emerging as the most stable group of the team, Knapp said that on paper, the pole vaulters are doing well. He noted that only CMU and Akron pole vaulters sit in the top five spots of the Mid-American Conference.

Junior Greg Pilling took the Chippewas fourth and final victory of the night with a shot put throw of 57 feet, four inches.

Friday's meet was the team's first and only scored meet of the year, and Knapp felt the atmosphere at EMU's Bowen Fieldhouse carried a buzz.

"It was an exciting atmosphere for not only us, but you could see people on the other teams felt the same way," he said. "It was a fun meet to watch and be involved in."

The team will now have a week to prepare for a trip Notre Dame to compete in the Meyo Invitational.

The team's next home meet is Sat. Feb. 20 when the team hosts the Jack Skoog Open.

Women's track places third at Michigan Intercollegiates

Issue date: 2/2/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

The CMU women's track team saw an increase in the level of competition, coinciding with an increase in performance last weekend.

The Chippewas placed third in the Michigan Intercollegiates in Ypsilanti, finishing behind No. 3 ranked Michigan and directly on the heels of rival Western Michigan, respectively, losing to the Broncos by only 16 points.

"It was the best that I've seen the team all year," said Erika Schroll, a junior high jumper. "It was really exciting, especially to be so close to Western."

Schroll said it was the closest the team has finished against WMU, a team that has resided in the upper-echelon of the Mid-American Conference.

"As we keep improving, I think we can close that gap and possibly beat them for the MAC [Championship]," she said.

Schroll competed in both the pentathlon and high jump, finishing in fourth with 3,317 points in the pentathlon and third in the high jump with a leap of 1.68 meters.

Head coach Karen Lutzke said the strong showing against WMU will result in higher confidence for the team.

"Definitely," Lutzke said about the confidence booster. "We know how good they are and we were right there with them."

Sophomore sprinter Jordan Dunn put together an excellent day that resulted in two personal bests, finishing first in the 60-yard dash with a time of 7.60 seconds and second in the 200-meter dash with a time of 25.5.

"What she did [this weekend] was something special," Lutzke said, commenting about Dunn, who is currently leading the conference in the 60-meter dash.

Freshman Dierra Riley finished right behind Dunn in the 60, placing second at 7.64. Riley's time was also a personal best.

Other winners over the weekend for the team were sophomore Norianna Brown, winning the shot put with a throw of 54 feet, four inches, and the distance medley team, taking first in their event with a time of 12:09.67.

"I was very pleased with how well we competed as a team," said Lutzke. "I thought we did a nice job of stepping up to the level of competition and doing everything that was necessary for us to be very competitive."

The team's second home meet of the season comes on Friday as they host a trio of MAC schools, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, and Toledo, for an open meet at the Indoor Athletic Complex.