CHASING A TITLE: Princeton University men’s track star Ed Trippas heads to a hurdle in a steeplechase race. Trippas, who competed in the Olympics for Australia last summer, set the top mark at the NCAA East Regional with a 8:33.93 time for the 3,000-meter steeplechase in late May. This week, he will be competing at the NCAA Championships, which begin on June 8 and run through Saturday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Trippas will be joined by 10 teammates as the Tigers are sending a program-record 11 athletes to the NCAA meet. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
By Justin Feil
Princeton University men’s track and field coach Fred Samara was confident a year ago that the Tigers team would be special this spring.
The Tigers have more than fulfilled that hope while rewriting the record books with what could be argued is its best team in school history. Excelling at the NCAA East Regional in late May, Princeton advanced to the NCAA Championships in a program-record 11 events. The NCAAs begin on June 8 and run through Saturday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
“You can say you’re going to have a good year, but to back it up is incredible,” said Samara, who brought 27 athletes to the East Regional. “The credit goes to the guys. They believe in themselves and they want to do well.”
Princeton finished fifth at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, but matching that is a tall order, even with its record numbers. No other school in the East had as many qualifiers. Add the qualifier numbers to the long list or records that Princeton athletes set this year.
“We knew we had a great team, but I was telling John Mack, our new AD who understands track and field, it’s the level of performances that we were a little surprised in,” said Samara.
“If you go down event by event, starting with the 100 meters and the relay, we knew we had good guys but to run 39.1 in the relay is unbelievable. In the 100, we had a 10.17. We had two guys at 20.5 in the 200, a 45.8 in the 400, a new record in the 800, a new record in the 1500. Field events, discus almost 206 (feet), 65 (feet) in the shot, the pole vault we knew we’d be good, high jump. I think in every event we exceeded our performance level that we had hoped for. It’s been remarkable.”
Being remarkable at the NCAA Championships is another goal. The Tigers will be up against the best competition they have faced all season as they look for more records.
“People don’t realize when you get to the NCAA track and field final, it’s probably the third best meet in the world after the Olympic Games and the World Championships because the level of competition is extraordinary,” said Samara. “That’s a lot to be said.”
Scoring a single point at NCAAs is difficult. The top eight individual finishers in each event score points. Princeton is without its top two decathletes and its top javelin thrower, all whom are injured, but still expects to be able to score points.
“Our discus thrower stands a chance to do well, and obviously our two vaulters, and senior Ed Trippas is one of the favorites in the steeplechase,” said Samara. “So I think if we can score between 21 and 24 points, we’ll do very good.”
Junior Sondre Guttormsen, who won the NCAA indoor pole vault crown, qualified along with his brother, junior Simen Guttormsen, for the outdoor championships to pace the field qualifiers from Princeton. Princeton had hoped to have representatives in three throws but senior javelin thrower Chandler Ault was injured before regionals. Senior Robbie Otal will compete in the discus and senior C.J. Licata, who also competed in the NCAA Indoors, will compete in the shot put.
“Licata got one point at shot indoors and that pushed us into fifth place,” said Samara. “And he’s got a shot (outdoors). He’s a little outside of it, but he’ll compete. They’ll all compete.”
Princeton could score a surprise point or two if they can get a top performance from the likes of senior Jeffrey Hollis, who will high jump. Hollis equaled his personal best at the East region meet with a clearance of 2.18 meters (7-feet-1¾).
“Our high jumper actually stands a chance at placing,” said Samara of Hollis. “He just has to jump well and not have a miss at the higher heights. But he’s right there right now. And that’s a one-centimeter deal. If you jump one height, and you make the next one you get All-American. He’s right there. That would be nice.”
Princeton also has plenty of qualifiers on the track as well beginning with their record-setting 4×100 relay. Senior Simang’aliso Ndhlovu, junior Ibrahim Ayorinde, sophomore Daniel Duncan, and senior Greg Sholars broke the Ivy League record with a 39.14-second clocking at regionals. The Tigers also qualified for their 4×400 relay. Sophomore Ladislav Topfer, sophomore William Doyle, sophomore Andersen Dimon and senior Michael Phillippy ran the second-best time in school history, 3:06.19, to advance to the NCAAs and give Princeton an unexpected highlight.
“The only surprise we had, I did not think the 4×4 was going to make it,” said Samara. “We were coming in ranked a lot lower, and they ran exceptionally. It was wonderful how well they ran. We had a 45.4 split, a 45.8 split. Our leadoff was a little slow, but our second leg was 46.9. Those are huge legs and we finished third in our section, and that’s an automatic qualifier. Now we’re running against Olympic caliber teams. Florida is at 2:58 and would make an Olympic final, and two or three other teams at 3:00 or 3:01. We’d like to break the school record, I think it’s 3:05.86. If we do that, we’ll be really happy.”
Trippas, who competed in the Olympics for Australia last summer, set the top mark at the regional with a 8:33.93 time for the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Phillippy also qualified individually outside of helping his relay qualify. He will run the 400 meters after snaring the final qualifying spot with a 46.10 clocking at the regional. Freshman Sam Rodman qualified in the 800 meters with a 1:49.08 finish for third in his heat while senior Sam Ellis ran 3:41.31 for third in his heat of the 1,500 meters and a spot at NCAAs. The record number of qualifiers will keep the Princeton staff busy in Oregon.
“It is harder because you have to keep track of so many people,” said Samara.
“We had so many moving parts at regionals with 27 guys, it was really amazing. It’s just better to have a lot of guys. They feed off one another, and it’s great because they can hold their chests high and say, ‘Look, we have so many qualifiers. Look at you, Georgia, or LSU, who we beat indoors, or Stanford, who we beat.’ They just want to know that we have a great program.”
The Tigers are expecting another good showing at the NCAA meet, having excelled throughout the year in big events. Princeton set an Ivy League record with its 231 points at Heptagonal Championships as it won the team title for the fourth straight time. The win also wrapped up the Triple Crown — winning the Heps title in cross country in the fall and indoor track and field to close the winter.
“They always say, if you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk,” said Samara. “We did. We scored 231 points at the league meet, and we could have scored 30 more but we didn’t compete a couple guys.”
The Tigers have been steady from start to finish this season. Every meet has seen some athlete step up for a record best.
“The whole year has been a joy,” said Samara. “We go from week to week. We had the Last Chance Meet the week after Heps and we didn’t know what to expect, and the guys were off the charts. Our freshman kid (Rodman) went 1:47.2 breaking one of the oldest records we have in the 800. We had guys running the 10k off the charts. Every week was a revelation. It was just better and better and better. The kids were so focused and believing in themselves, it was remarkable. The only bad thing is we graduate almost every one of them. But we have a very good nucleus returning, and we have a tremendous freshman class coming in. We’re counting on the freshmen to replace some of the guys.”
The experience that returned has been a major factor in the Tigers’ success. Princeton was missing a chunk of its roster who preserved a year of eligibility by taking a gap year. The year was spent wisely and those athletes returned hungry to compete for Princeton for one last time.
“One of the good things that happened was COVID was hard on everybody, but we had 14 guys take the year off and they all competed unattached during that year,” said Samara. “They gained tremendous experience. When they came back, they said, ‘We’re really going to be good.’ That helped. Experience is a key thing definitely.”
Experience will come into play again at the NCAA Championships. Princeton will be looking to affirm its No. 16 ranking in the latest United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Division I Men’s Outdoor Track & Field Rating Index. Princeton will compete in 11 events against the best of the best as a grand send-off to possibly the greatest team in Tigers history.
“I don’t think people understand the level of competition,” said Samara. “You have 330 track teams and you have teams that have Olympians from all over the world competing on them, even on our team. We have two — Sondre and Ed Trippas. We can boast that. It’s just the level of competition is so high, you can never take for granted even finishing in the top eight. Just making the NCAA finals, being one of the top 24 people in the country, is a statement in itself.”