Track and Field Previews : USC Expecting a Renaissance of Sorts in '86

Times Staff Writer

The prominence that USC once took for granted in track and field no longer exists. It belongs to a different era.

NCAA scholarship limitations, the influx of foreign athletes on the college level and competitive opposition have chipped away at the Trojans' dominant status in the sport.

But USC, which has won 26 NCAA outdoor championships, far more than any other school, is making a bit of a comeback.

Now that doesn't mean that USC will regain its once lofty position in track, but it will, at least, be respectable.

"We're not as deep as we would like to be in the field events, but we have 30 athletes on our roster that can help us win," Coach Ernie Bullard said. "Last year, we had only about 17 who contributed."

Bullard, in his second year as USC's coach, has apparently improved his team with 13 highly regarded recruits from high school and junior college ranks, along with a weight man from West Germany and a distance runner from Kenya.

"It will be up to our freshmen to take us in one direction or another," Bullard said.

The Trojans had thought that they would be even stronger because they were counting on recruiting such outstanding athletes as sprinter Henry Thomas and weight man Brian Blutreich.

But UCLA won that recruiting battle, stunning USC.

"We got knocked down twice for the count of nine in the first round by the Bruins when they got Thomas and Blutreich," Bullard said. "But we got off the floor and got some people."

Bullard said he doesn't have as much depth as he would like in the field events, but the Trojans are formidable from 100 through 800 meters and the 400- and 1,600-meter relays.

"I think we'll do extremely well from 100 through 800 meters, and teams that make inroads against us will have to be pretty good--and we meet some pretty good teams," Bullard said.

Although USC no longer has Darwin Cook, the Pacific 10 sprint champion in 1985, it has a solid nucleus this year.

Pancho Morales, the Pac-10 200-meter champion in 1984 who was redshirted last year because of a stress fracture, is the veteran of a talented sprint corps.

Others include Mike Dexter, the state junior college 200-meter titlist; Mel Hedgepath, Southern California junior college 400-meter champion; Antonio Manning, who has been hampered by injuries the last two seasons, and holdover quarter-miler Terry Ivey.

Dexter, who has a best time of 20.57 in the 200, was timed in 20.9 in a meet with UC Irvine last Saturday.

"We have seven people who can run the sprint relay for us and that doesn't include our hurdlers," Bullard said. "It would be unwise for our sprinters to have any goal other than the national championships."

USC was particularly weak in the hurdles last year, and that area has been strengthened by the addition of George Porter of Lompoc, the national prep record-holder--35.32 seconds--in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles; Robert Reading of Berkeley, the state champion in the 110-meter event; and Hawthorne High's Michael Graham, runner-up to Porter in the state meet with a time of 36.56.

Porter has a hamstring injury, but Bullard expects him to be ready for the big meets later in the season.

Bullard said that although he doesn't want the Trojans to become a foreign legion, as can be found at Washington State, SMU and Texas El Paso, he intends to recruit foreign athletes to fulfill certain needs on his team.

So he brought in Bernd Kneissler, the West German national shotput champion, who has a best in that event of 65 feet 3 inches. He also has thrown the discus 203 feet.

Kneissler, 23, is an imposing athlete, who stands 6 feet 8 inches and weighs 270 pounds. He is eligible only for this season.

USC has forfeited distance running points to almost every team it has met in recent years. But Kenya's Fredson Mayiek could help close that gap, as could freshman Roman Gomez, the two-time state champion from Belmont High in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters, and sophomore Romney Mawhorter, a steeplechaser-distance runner.

"Gomez and Mayiek are unproven entities on the college level, but they're good ones," Bullard said. "Mawhorter is getting better all the time and was a great surprise last year."

A capsule look at the other events:

Middle Distances--USC has four runners who have been under 1:50 in the 800--senior Jim Fisher, junior Don Young, sophomore Eric Schermerhorn and Joey Bunch, a two-time state junior college champion from Taft.

Bullard said that Bunch is capable of running in the 1:45 range. Schermerhorn has been bothered by a stress fracture.

Jumps--Long jumper Michael Harris and triple jumper Michael Pullins, with respective best marks of 25-6 and 52-10, provide quality for USC, but there isn't much depth.

High Jumper Brian Patchett, from Glendale College, cleared 7-1 in a recent meet, and Bullard said he came close to making 7-3 3/4. At 5-8 and 135, he's USC's version of Spud Webb.

Pole Vault--Steve Klassen, with a best of 17-4 1/2, and Doug Wicks, who has done 17-8 indoors, should provide the Trojans with dual meet points. Wicks is coming back from a broken ankle.

Weights--Kneissler, shotputter Walt DeJean (58-8 3/4) and discus thrower Rick Luiten (180-9) shore up a previously weak area. Senior John Wolitarsky holds the school record in the hammer throw at 225-10 and has improved each season.

Bullard also expects senior decathlete Mike Gonzales to return to the form he had in 1984, when he placed fifth in the U.S. Olympic trials. Gonzales also has a best mark of 238-2 in the javelin.

Bullard summarized the strength of his team by saying: "We're better than UCLA was last year."

But the Bruins, who were unbeaten in dual meets in 1985, have improved considerably this season. It remains to be seen whether the Trojans have caught up with their cross-town rivals.

The USC women's track program is also rebounding as Fred LaPlante, now in his third year as coach, had another good recruiting year.

"It's the best freshman class I ever recruited," LaPlante said. "I don't think anyone will outclass us. We expect to do well at the dual, conference and national level.

"It's the first time we've reached our scholarship maximum of 16. We've always had a depth problem at USC, but we have less of a depth problem than in the past. Our only weak event is the javelin."

The talented newcomers include Leslie Maxie, the national prep record-holder in the 400 hurdles (55.20); British distance runner Elise Lyon; half-miler Lesley Noll; Karen Koellner, an Iowa state prep champion in the 400 hurdles; shotputter Heidi Adams and sprinter Myra Mayberry, a junior college transfer.

They will complement sprinter Gervaise McCraw, quarter-miler LaWanda Cabell, hurdlers-jumpers Wendy Brown and Yvette Bates, and Sharon Hatfield and Yolanda Fletcher.

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