LINCOLN — Lakayla Harris’ rankings on Nebraska’s all-time lists are, at the same time, both a testament to her abilities and a sign of how improved the Big Ten has become in sprints.
Earlier this season, the junior from Miami ran the fourth-fastest 60 meters in Nebraska history, adding to a résumé that includes two of the 10 best all-time marks in the 200.
“She’s just got a lot of tools to work with,” said Nebraska assistant Matt Martin, who works with the women’s sprinters. “As a recruit, she’s one of the top ones from her class in the sprints to come into the Big Ten.”
But going into the Big Ten indoor championships, which begin Friday and run through Saturday at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio, Harris is in strong contention for All-Big Ten honors, but she will have her work cut out for her against the conference’s best, who Martin says are as good as they’ve ever been.
“The Big Ten has really rallied in the six or seven years we’ve been in (the conference), in the sprint events, both men and women,” Martin said, “and yet (Harris is) doing stuff that only a select few at Nebraska have done before her. It shows she’s working at a high level, and the competition has really skyrocketed in track in field in the last couple years.”
At the previous eight Big Ten indoor championships, the winning 60 meters time has been 7.36 seconds or faster, with an average time of 7.30. From 1999 to 2009, eight of the 11 conference championship winners ran 7.35 or slower with an average mark of 7.35. That 0.05 seconds may not seem like a lot, but in the sport’s shortest race, it can represent the difference between a gold medal and a finish well down the podium.
Harris has learned how much work goes into improving those tiny increments. After finishing seventh in the 60 and eighth in the 200 at last year’s Big Ten indoor championships, she and Martin dreamed bigger for 2018. Her rehab from a hamstring injury suffered in last spring’s outdoor season left her seeing gains in the weight room for the first time in her life with a focus on lower-body workouts essential for sprinters.
She entered the indoor season with a goal of finishing in the top three in the conference but was frustrated when she couldn’t break 7.60 in her first two 60-meter races of the year. Her confidence ebbed until she turned to one of the sport’s all-time great, Usain Bolt. She watched videos of the Jamaican world-record holder’s starts — the part of the race that Harris admits she has the most trouble — and listened to interviews to try to copy Bolt’s mindset.
“He was saying, honestly, just have high confidence,” Harris said. “Just know you train this long for something, just be confident and know you can do what you can do.”
Harris earned her spot on NU’s all-time charts on Feb. 2 at the Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational, running a career-best 7.39 in the prelims . Only three women have run faster times in a Nebraska uniform, and all of them — Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, Merlene Ottey, and Shelley-Ann Brown — have Olympic medals. (Brown’s is in the bobsled.)
The next day, Harris ran 7.40 in the 60 -meter finals and took second in the 200 with a season-best 23.88, finishing behind Iowa’s Briana Guillory, whose winning time of 23.26 leads the conference. Harris’ 200 time ranks No. 8 in the Big Ten.
“It’s a natural evolution you see in this conference where the young kids sometimes struggle,” Martin said. “(The Big Ten is) very competitive. The marks are really close together in the scoring. She’s been good enough to get into the finals, and now we’re ready for her to take the next step.”
Harris is one of 10 Husker women to rank in the top five in an event going into the weekend. Sophomore Petra Luteran enters as the conference’s top-ranked high jumper, while junior Angela Mercurio is tied for the top spot in the triple jump.
Freshman Lara Omerzu (No. 3 high jump), freshman Maddie Holland (No. 3 pole vault) and sophomore Raynesha Lewis (No. 3 long jump) are among NU’s other favorites for high-podium finishes.
For the Nebraska men, looking to improve on last season’s fourth-place finish, 16 athletes hold top-10 rankings, led by the high jumpers. Landon Bartel enters the meet with the Big Ten’s top jump of 7 feet, 3 ¾ inches, which ranks No. 7 in the country. Bartel won the 2016 conference indoor title as a sophomore. Teammate Grant Anderson is right behind him, tied for second in the conference with a top mark of 7-3.
Kaiwan Culmer is ranked No. 2 in the triple jump with a season best of 52-1 ¾, while senior Cody Walton, the defending Big Ten heptathlon champion, has the conference’s second-highest score this season (5,619 points).
The competition of the Big Ten meet usually produces the top marks of the year, for sprints especially. The 300-meter track at the SPIRE Institute features longer straightaways, making it more conducive to lower times.
At last season’s conference meet, Harris ran a career-best 23.72 in the 200. She would need to better that time by 0.13 seconds to move into the No. 2 spot on an oversized track in Husker history.
“The history is just the best of the best,” Harris said. “For you to be at least top 10 of that is pretty nice. But top four, it’s like I could be first, it’s so close. I just try to have high expectations so you can keep progressing.”