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‘Fifth is great, but we’re not satisfied’: Men’s track and field earns eight All-American honors at NCAA Indoor Championships

<h5>Men’s track and field at NCAA Indoor Championships.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6><a href="https://twitter.com/PrincetonTrack/status/1502819598382555142/photo/1" target="_self">@PrincetonTrack/Twitter.</a></h6>
Men’s track and field at NCAA Indoor Championships. 
@PrincetonTrack/Twitter.

The men’s track and field team have outdone themselves.

The Tigers earned their way to fifth place in the nation on the weekend of March 11th at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Indoor Track Championships. The team sent eight athletes to Birmingham, Alabama for the championships. As if sending these Tigers to the biggest meet of the season wasn’t impressive enough, all eight Tigers earned All-American honors.

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“Leading up to the indoor season, we all believed that we were one of the best teams in the nation, but now, we know for a fact that we are,” first-year distance runner Sam Rodman told the Daily Princetonian. “And on top of that, other teams [know] as well.”

“We knew we were at this level,” junior pole vaulter Sondre Guttormsen added. “I guess it [was] a validation of our team and how good we are.”

Day 1

Guttormsen had one goal in mind entering the meet: to win — and win he did. He secured the championship title in the pole vault with 5.75m and was awarded with the Mid-Atlantic Region NCAA field athlete of the year. His title is the first NCAA indoor title for Princeton since 2002. His brother, junior pole vaulter Simen Guttormsen, placed fourth in the event. Together, the duo secured crucial points for the team, setting them up for success going into day two of the meet.

The first day also saw a fourth-place finish by the distance medley relay (DMR) team. First-year Harrison Witt ran the 1200m to launch the relay, followed by senior Michael Phillippy in the 400m, Rodman in the 800m, and senior Sam Ellis as the anchor in the 1600m. With a time of 9:26.01, the Tigers not only earned themselves All-American honors, but also secured the second best time in school history.

Despite a successful finish, the moments leading up to the relay were filled with uncertainty. Witt traveled to the meet as an alternate for junior mid-distance runner Ethan Reese. After sustaining an injury at Heptagonals, it was unclear whether or not Reese would be able to compete.

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“I knew that I was running the 1200 leg in place of Ethan about 20 to 30 minutes before the gun went off,” Witt explained.

Even with a last minute change, Coach Fred Samara was as confident as ever.

“Harrison is one tough runner. [The coaches] knew he would stick himself right in the pack and never give an inch to the more experienced runners,” Coach Samara told the ‘Prince.’ “I kept reminding him to remember how good he is.”

Still, Witt felt the nerves creep up on him.

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“My stomach dropped a little bit as flickers of the most important performance of my life flashed before my eyes,” he said.

But he knew he had his coaches and team on his side. “Sam [Ellis] reminded me of the confidence my teammates have in me, and I quickly refocused and loosened up.”

For Rodman, his nerves mainly stemmed from the pressure of competing against so many well-versed athletes, especially as a first-year.

“I was very [nervous] the week of the race, but once I started warming up, I knew that I belonged there and was just focused on doing my part,” he said.

However, Rodman felt the support of the team just as much as Witt did. “I had a lot of trust in my teammates and my coach, which helped with the nerves.”

While earning All-American honors was a triumph for the Tigers, some of their favorite moments at the meet were watching their teammates dominate in their respective events.

“It was special to see everyone come together to accomplish an amazing feat,“ Witt reflected. “I remember smiling a big goofy grin and soaking it all in as the footsteps pounded by.”

Day 2

For both junior heptathlete Andrei Iosivas and senior thrower CJ Licata, competing on the second day was a lot harder than the first.

Iosivas’ heptathlon events were split between the two days: 60m, long jump, shot put, and high jump on the first day, followed by the 60m hurdles, pole vault, and 1000m on the second. In the 60m, he set an impressive NCAA indoor championships meet record of 6.71 seconds.

“I didn’t expect to run that fast,” he laughed. “It’s kind of cool, but I mean the heptathlon is seven events, so I couldn’t really be stuck on it.”

Iosivas emphasized the physical and mental toughness required for success.

“The first day is pretty easy because everyone has all the adrenaline,” he said. “but the second day, your body hurts, your mind hurts, and you’re just like ‘damn, we’re still going.’”

For Iosivas, he explained that focus was the key to his success. Going into the second day, Iosivas kept his eye on the prize, and with 6,069 points, he placed fourth, breaking his own personal and Ivy League record of 6,036 set at Heptagonals in February. En route to his top-five finish, he also earned a personal best in the 60m hurdles with a time of 8.82 and in the 1000m with 2:46.93.

Licata, on the other hand, spent the first day cheering on his teammates as his shot-put event was one of the last of the entire meet.

“I was watching all the events on Friday. It’s exciting, but you're like ‘crap, like I’m doing this tomorrow,’” he said. “I just felt like the tension could [be] cut with a knife, but that’s what makes it fun.”

Even surrounded by talented athletes and future Olympians, Licata did not let the nerves deter him. In fact, he used them to his advantage, transforming his nervous energy into adrenaline. His mark of 19.75 placed eighth at the meet and secured fifth place for the team, tied with Texas A&M at 26 points.

Looking ahead to the outdoor season

While the Tigers definitely made a statement at indoor championships, their goal since the beginning of the year has been to show the nation what they’re capable of in the outdoor season. With a top-five finish last weekend, the team feels even more momentum going into the spring season.

“I think fifth place really blew a lot of our expectations off, especially because the indoor meet is so rigorous to [qualify for],” Licata commented. “We’re all motivated and locked in. To say that we can finish fifth indoors with legitimately eight guys that competed, we … can do something very special outdoors.”

“Fifth is great, but we’re not satisfied. Outdoor is where we really shine, and we’re headed straight to the top this outdoor season,” Phillippy added.

With a season opener at Penn this Saturday, March 19, the team is ready to not only dominate their League foes once again but also podium at NCAAs.

As Ellis put it, “The team goals are to destroy the other Ivy teams at Heps, get top 3 at NCAAs, [and] have a lot of fun doing it.”

A shout out to Coach Samara

Every successful team needs a leader, and for the Tigers, that leader is Samara.

Following Heps, Samara was named Ivy League Coach of the Year. Samara has been selected for this award nine out of the 11 times it has been awarded. As a former decathlon track athlete and Olympian himself, his knowledge of the sport is unmatched.

The award was well-deserved: Samara has led the Tigers to 49 Ivy Championship titles — 24 indoor, 20 outdoor, and five in cross country. This season’s title was the seventh consecutive indoor title for Princeton.

While the statistics are an accurate representation of Samara’s talent, his coaching expertise goes beyond the titles. In interviews with the ‘Prince,’ the All-American Tigers were asked how Samara has influenced them. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“Coach Samara is a Princeton track legend at this point. He’s impacted many lives over the years with his passion and love for the team. I’ve never met someone that is both so competitively fierce and sincerely compassionate as Fred Samara. He inspires winners and people want to compete their hardest for him.” — Sam Ellis ’22

“I owe a lot of my success just from his technical coaching experience. I don’t think anybody really coaches like him, but he also demands a lot from you, which I think is really good because it keeps you on your toes. He deserves the award, clearly; that’s why he has so many of them. But it’s … just the fact that he elevates you physically as an athlete, but also just mentally. That’s the big thing that he strives for.” — CJ Licata ’22

“Coach Samara is just so passionate. He loves the sport with all his heart … After someone makes a big throw or a big jump, he’ll literally cry because he’s so happy. He has so much love, both for the sport and the team. On top of that, because of the excellence he wants you to be at … the team kind of holds everyone else accountable to be excellent.” — Andrei Iosivas ’23

“I remember leaving for a meet earlier in the season where our relay team was going to try to qualify for NCAAs. I ran into Coach Samara before leaving, [and he] told me ‘Just remember, you belong here.’ It meant so much for him to say that, especially being a freshman and especially coming from such an accomplished person in the track and field world. He is always very supportive and has believed we were one of the best teams in the nation since we first met in August.” — Sam Rodman ’25

Julia Nguyen is a co-head editor of the Sports section of The Daily Princetonian who usually covers the weekly recaps. She can be reached at trucn@princeton.edu or on Instagram @jt.nguyen.

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