In Claudia Ababio’s first three years on the Maryland track and field team, the program qualified a total of seven athletes to the NCAA Championships. Ababio reached the NCAA regional round only once, where she finished in 15th place in the discus, three spots away from advancing.
This year, though, a school-record six athletes are headed to Eugene, Oregon, for the NCAA Championships that begin Wednesday. Ababio hopes it represents an upward trend for coach Andrew Valmon’s program.
“It’s really crazy to think about how [far] we’ve come as a team,” she said. “I hope that, if possible, every year we have more and more people going. That’s always the goal.”
Maryland brought nine athletes to Tampa for the NCAA East Regionals last month. Thrower Emma O’Hara readied the group for competition by setting a high bar, telling them, “Let’s go 9-for-9!”
“It was kind of a joke, but it was like, ‘Wow, we could really do that!'” Ababio said. “That’s such an amazing feeling, because in years past that would not have been a possibility.”
The Terps fell short of that ambitious goal but still had one of the best days in program history. Ababio and Greg Thompson (discus), O’Hara (hammer throw), Sam Shoultz and Dallyssa Huggins (high jump) and Jewel Smith (long jump) all made the cut to compete in nationals at historic Hayward Field. And Valmon is quick to point out that even among the athletes who didn’t advance, none finished worse than 18th.
Three of the six qualifiers — Thompson, O’Hara and Shoultz — are international recruits or transfers, and Huggins and Smith are a sophomore and junior, respectively. Valmon said the new blood has pushed the program to new heights, but he added that those players have benefited from avoiding the adversity their predecessors faced.
“They only know what they have. They only know the success that’s around them,” the 15th-year head coach explained. “They don’t know dark years. They only know seeing the heights of things.”
During Ababio’s first two years in College Park, she didn’t pay much attention to the success of the team, she said. Maryland had just one national qualifier in her freshman season.
Now, the team results are impossible to ignore. Thompson and Shoultz are ranked in the top-10 in the country in their events, and Huggins is No. 22 in the high jump. Valmon predicted the team could finish as high as top-40 in the country at nationals.
“From humble beginnings to now, it’s a good thing,” Valmon said. “Our alumni base, they’ve been galvanized to see the production of these kids.”
After having three athletes at nationals last year, the team aimed to double its national presence in 2018.
With the help of first-year throws coach Travis Coleman and a strong trio of throwers led by Thompson — the only returning Terp who reached the NCAA Championships last year — the team met that mark.
“It took a while for the belief, especially with [Ababio and O’Hara], to settle in,” Thompson said. “We’re quite fortunate that [Coleman] has come in and just kept the ball rolling. And now he expects more from us, and we expect more from ourselves.”
Valmon wants to build on the program’s accomplishments and believes the success of the last few years will sustain itself moving forward. All six national qualifiers this season are in the field events, the area Maryland has prided itself on. But Valmon said accomplishments there lay the groundwork for improvements on the track and is already paying dividends in recruiting.
If Valmon is right, the team might be able to double its national qualifiers again, leaving Ababio as one of the last athletes to have suffered through any “dark years” on the Kehoe Track at Ludwig Field.
“One thing we’ve emphasized to this group is to finish the job, and this group collectively has finished the job,” Valmon said. “It’s been a big springboard … and we’re excited about what this has brought us.”