Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Texas chases program history at Big 12 Outdoor Track & Field Championship

Johanna Grestchel
American-Statesman Correspondent

Texas' track and field program is so storied — winning a total of 75 conference team titles in its esteemed history, not to mention producing countless All-Americans and NCAA titles — that even third-year head coach Edrick Floréal isn’t exactly sure what the team’s stats are these days.

With a clean sweep of the men’s and women’s team titles at the Big 12 indoor track and field championships in February, the Longhorns are in a position to complete a Big 12 indoor-outdoor sweep for the fourth time in school history, after accomplishing the feat in 1999, 2006 and 2015.

Golden:Texas jumper Tara Davis has turned despair into a summer feel-good story

The women’s program, ranked No. 4 nationally, has been more successful as of late, but one of Floréal’s key goals in joining the staff was to invest in getting the men, currently ranked sixth, back up to that level. 

Texas' Tara Davis takes off on one of her attempts in the women's long jump at the Texas Relays in March. Her winning leap of 23 feet, 5¼  inches broke a 36-year-old NCAA record held by Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

“It’s huge,” Floréal said Thursday, as the team headed to Manhattan, Kan., for this weekend’s Big 12 outdoor championships. “Anytime you can have both programs be equally successful, that’s the best part. … Sometimes you invest (more) in the group that’s winning more, (but) we’ve put a lot of emphasis on getting the men back together with the women.”

Arguably Floréal’s brightest star this season is Tara Davis, the collegiate indoor and outdoor record-holder and reigning NCAA indoor champion in the long jump. Her leap of 23 feet, 5¼ inches to win the Texas Relays broke a 36-year-old NCAA record held by track legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee. 

Track, music, TikTok:Longhorns' Charles Brockman knows all about managing hurdles

But Floréal is priming Davis to be even more than an elite-level long jumper. She's a national contender in the 100-meter hurdles as well after breaking 13 seconds for the first time, turning in successive 12.61 and 12.75 breakthrough performances. 

“I think she’d given up, mentally, that hurdles was not going to be for her, (and) her only chance of success was going to be the long jump,” Floréal said. “She wants to be a superstar, and you can’t be a superstar and a one-trick pony. Hurdles helps her be a superstar, a Bowerman (Award) type athlete.”

She’s gained confidence in the hurdles recently from working out with world record-holder Keni Harrison, who is also coached by Floréal. 

“They had some good battles out of the blocks, and that helped her see that was possible,” Floréal said.

Texas Relays:Texas Relays: Tara Davis, Kynnedy Flannel have risen to their own challenges

UT's Kynnedy Flannel, center, leads the field during the women's 400-meter relay at the Texas Relays in March. Flannel is favored to win the 100 and 200 at this weekend's Big 12 outdoor championships.

Of course, a conference team title is built on the backs of an entire team, not just a few individuals. Floréal expects big things out of Kynnedy Flannel, who earned the Big 12 high point award for her double sprint win at the indoor championships just a few months ago. She's favored to win both the 100 and 200 this weekend, plus play a role in the Longhorns’ 400 relay and perhaps even the 1,600 relay.

On the men’s side, Tripp Piperi returns to competition for the first time since the indoor season. The reigning NCAA shot put champion fell on his ankle, spraining it, during practice ahead of the NCAA indoors and has missed the entire spring season. Floréal said Piperi was cleared to start throwing again just two weeks ago.

“That’s doable for him,” Floréal said. “Some athletes wouldn’t be mentally strong enough to compete. … He’s as close to getting healthy as possible. If he doesn’t throw this weekend, his season is over.”

Davis, Piperi and Flannel are just a few of Floréal’s athletes with long-term goals this season not just for the NCAA championships, but the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games in Tokyo. It’s a long summer, complete with the NCAA regionals to qualify for nationals, and Floréal is strategic in his approach for peaking his athletes at the right time.

“We use each one of these meets as an evaluation — you need to get this accomplished, get out this fast,” he said. “Each one of these meets is not just a competition against a time or a team, but preparation for the very next competition. We (also) don’t compete these kids very much, compared to some other teams, to make sure we don’t burn them out. That’s very important.”