Sun Devils eye repeat of NCAA titles

Arizona State senior Bryan McBride has his sights set on a second straight NCAA high jump title at Hayward Field this June. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

TEMPE, Ariz. – As defending NCAA champions and seniors at Arizona State, Shelby Houlihan and Bryan McBride want nothing more than to end their college careers at Hayward Field standing on the top step of the podium, arms raised in triumph.

“That’s pretty much my main goal right now,’’ said McBride, who cleared 7-feet, 5 ¾ inches to win the NCAA high jump title as an ASU junior in 2014. “There’s no better feeling than to leave your last college meet on top. There’s a lot of good jumpers. It’s not going to be easy. I’m ready for it.’’

“That’s exactly what my goal is,’’ said Houlihan, last year’s NCAA champion at 1,500 meters. “It’s a really cool place to run. I knew I had the potential to win. I can’t describe what it’s like. It’s such a cool feeling.’’

The two Sun Devils will be returning to Hayward Field later in June, as newly-minted professionals, to compete in the USATF Outdoor Championships, June 25-28. They plan to turn pro shortly after the NCAA meet, making the next few months an exciting time for them as they transition from the cocoon of college to the professional ranks.

Of the two, Houlihan might be more pro-ready based on her best times and range of events from 800 to 3,000 meters. Last year in a post-NCAA meet in Canada she lowered her 1,500 best to 4:10.89, nearly eight seconds better than the time she ran to win the 2014 NCAA title (4:18.10). She also has personal bests of 2:01.12 in the 800, 4:28.71 for the indoor mile and 9:03.71 for 3,000.

“She’s such a high-level runner, she does all her workouts on her own because no one can keep up with her,’’ said ASU assistant Louis Quintana, who coaches Houlihan. “It creates mental toughness. She knows how to lead. It’s going to help her on the next level. I’m excited where she’s going to be this summer, racing in Europe, where she can get in the low 4:00’s. It’s her ability to push herself.’’

The story of how a girl from Sioux City, Iowa, came to flourish in the Arizona desert is a pretty simple one. She’s the athletic equivalent of those folks who point their RVs south and west in order to escape the cold and gloom of winter in the Midwest and East. Instead of a leviathan-like motor home, Houlihan’s mode of transport is her sleek legs.

“I’ve always disliked winter growing up,’’ she said. “In my room at home I’d have a heater and it was like a sauna. I love warm weather. Nothing like being able to run in shorts and a sports bra in February. I love it. I love living here. That was the factor. I knew I would love living here regardless of running.’’

With that in mind, Houlihan was an easy recruit for Quintana, another snowbird (from Pennsylvania) who managed to escape.

“I remember doing a home visit,’’ Quintana said. “I drove through a snow drift to get to her house. I knew then we were going to be a pretty good sell with the sun. I think that helped. She wanted to go someplace warm and we were able to accommodate her. We were excited and fortunate to be able to sign her. She’s been a tremendous asset to the program.’’

In contrast, McBride is homegrown, from nearby Peoria. Just as Houlihan has prospered leaving home, so has McBride by not going anywhere. He came to ASU with a high school best of 7-0 ¼ and now he’s up to 7-5 ¾, the No. 2 mark in school history behind Kyle Arney’s 7-6. At ASU, McBride is mentored by the head coach, Greg Kraft.

“Which is great,’’ McBride said. “He definitely knows what he’s talking about. It’s awesome to be able to say I’ve done everything I could with the training I’ve had.’’

Most events in track and field have benchmarks of excellence that confer respect on those athletes who attain those standards. For the high jump, it’s 2.30 meters, or 7-6 ½. Clear 2.30 and you can consider yourself a “real’’ high jumper. McBride knows this.

“If you really want to make a dent in the professional world, 2.30 is that mark,’’ McBride said.

He recently took some shots at 2.30 despite an inflamed left foot which “made me feel more confident. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t jump 2.30, 2.31.’’

Count McBride as one of the many athletes, college or pro, who love competing at Hayward Field. McBride’s reasons have more to do with how the apron feels under his feet than with the roar of the crowd, although that’s certainly nice, too.

“It’s a great place to jump,’’ he said. “It was awesome when I jumped last year. It just felt great. It was soft and our track is a lot harder. It’s not only the facility, it’s the crowd and the environment. It’s nice to have fans that love track and they support anyone who’s out there.’’

Even if they’re Devils and not Ducks.

Houlihan has her (lower-case) ducks in a row as far as her goals as an athlete, and they are lofty ones.

“I want to be in the Olympics,’’ she said. “I’m planning on running in the next Olympic Trials (also at Hayward, in 2016). Definitely, I want to win a gold medal at the Olympics, compete in the World Championships. I want to be at that level.’’

Quintana said Houlihan has some similarities to a pair of women who used solid college careers as the foundation for successful professional careers in Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury. The three could all be racing for spots on the U.S. World Championships team at June’s USATF qualifier.

“She’s excited about that,’’ Quintana said. “I think she’ll have a long career, based on her range. I think she’s very similar to Jenny Simpson in that she can run everything from the 800 to the 5k.’’

Said Houlihan, “It’s cool to be able to see the steps the pros have made who were in my position. You can look at how they got where they are.’’

Getting to the highest level, whether it’s as a collegian or a pro, usually involves a trip to Hayward Field. Houlihan and McBride want to make their last competitions there as collegians count, as in 10 points each for their teams and a view from the top of the podium.

2015 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships ticket information click here

2015 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships competition schedule click here

Arizona State senior Shelby Houlihan raises her arms in triumph after capturing the 1,500-meter title at the 2014 NCAA Championships at Hayward Field. (Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson)

Arizona State senior Shelby Houlihan raises her arms in triumph after capturing the 1,500-meter title at the 2014 NCAA Championships at Hayward Field. (Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson)

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.