Reaching the Finish Line

May 3, 2012 (by Matt Smith, Gunnison Country Times) — Tyler Pennel is on the last leg of what’s been a marathon journey through collegiate athletics.

When the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships take place on the Western campus this coming Sunday through Tuesday, May 6-8, a sixth-year senior has in his sights set on an honor that’s managed to elude him all these years. 

After compiling a total of nine All-American honors between cross country and track and field seasons – including numerous runner-up finishes at the RMAC and NCAA Division II levels – Pennel would like to finally have his moment at the top of the podium for an individual finish.

“I want an individual title before I leave,” said Pennel, who’s now a graduate student at Western. “I’ve racked up a lot of All-American honors, but I definitely want that individual title.”

Just a few weeks ago, it looked as if his chances of even competing for individual honors – conference or otherwise – were out of the question. Following a string of injuries that plagued the later stages of his collegiate career, Pennel was left waiting for the NCAA to tell him whether or not he even had a career left.

“We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen,” Pennel said of his eligibility. “I almost got to the point where I just wanted to know, either way.”

Good news finally came during the first week of April, just in time for Pennel to turn the nation’s attention his way. At the Stanford Invitational in California on April 6, he ran the seventh-fastest time in Division II history in the 10,000-meter run, at 28:23.54.

Days after posting the mark, Pennel’s name not only showed up in the pages of Sports Illustrated, but he was also named one of just three Division II athletes to be mentioned on the list of candidates to receive the prestigious Bowerman Award, which goes to the top collegiate track and field student athlete of the year from all NCAA divisions.

Coming from a humble beginning – in which he was not heavily recruited out of high school and only offered scholarship money by Western – his eventual ascent into the national limelight was yet another redemption song for Pennel. It was also a sign that recruiting strategies are paying off for his coaches.

“It’s always been our goal to develop athletes,” said Western distance coach Jennifer Michel. “Tyler can be an example for a lot of gals and guys out there. He hasn’t had anything easy.”

“It’s kind of been redemption in my own sense,” Pennel added. “I’m out there running against guys that beat me back in high school and early in college and now I’m out there beating them.”

Winning the next handful of races is all that really matters now. This weekend, Pennel enters the RMAC Championships with the fastest time in Division II for the 10,000 and is ranked second in the 5,000.

The championships will feature a total of seven teams ranked in the top 25 of the latest U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association National Rankings.

On the men’s side, Adams State will enter with the top ranking in the nation, where Western sits in fifth. On the women’s side, Adams State is second, New Mexico Highlands sixth and the Mountaineers are seventh in the national rankings.

“Just because we show up doesn’t mean we’ll walk away with anything,” said Western head track coach Chris Bradford. “You can throw a dart at the RMACs and you’ll hit a kid that’s going to be shooting for a national title in one event or another.”

He went on to say that the men’s 1,500 and 110 hurdles should be a preview for the Divisional II National Championships, as well as the women’s 400 and the 3,000 steeplechase on both sides of the spectrum.

The Mountaineers’ last RMAC team titles came in 1998 for the women and 1999 for the men.

The action starts Sunday at 1 p.m. with the first of 10 events in the men’s decathlon, followed by the start of the women’s heptathlon at 1:30 p.m. Monday’s meet will begin at 8:30 a.m. with the second day of the decathlon, and the first championship event of the meet starts at 9 a.m. with the men’s 10,000-meter run.

Story by Matt Smith, staff writer, and posted with permission from the "Gunnison Country Times."

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012 - 3:15am