Track Star Leaves Nebraska in the Dust : Ex-Husker Hurdler Likes It Closer to Home, So She Heads for Cal Poly

Times Staff Writer

The prospects couldn't have looked brighter for former Muir High track star Lana Cantrell as a sophomore at the University of Nebraska.

At least, that's how it appeared on the surface.

The 5-3, 128-pound hurdler and sprinter had made an impressive debut at the NCAA Division I level as a freshman, finishing fourth in the Big Eight Conference in the 100-meter hurdles and fifth in the 100-meter dash. She also competed in the mile relay at the Division I nationals and was an alternate in the 100-meter hurdles.

Cantrell was well on her way toward becoming a star at the Division I level.

Only Cantrell was not happy with the depersonalized approach to big-time track at Nebraska and missed her home in Pasadena.

"The program was good and Nebraska is an excellent school academically but I wanted to get back home and I was looking more for the individualized coaching that I was used to (in high school)," she said.

"Being at a big university, there's a very high emphasis on winning. I missed the one-to-one contact (with coaches). I was interested in getting more individual help on my technique and as a person."

So when Cantrell came home for her holiday break at the end of the semester in December of 1986, she decided she would not be returning to Nebraska. She expected to enroll at a junior college.

"When I came home for Christmas my intention was to enroll at Pasadena City College," she said.

That was before Cantrell spoke with Mike Knowles, an assistant track coach at Muir, who also happened to know Cal Poly Pomona women's track Coach John Turek. "Mike Knowles gave me a call (in December) and told me that Lana had left Nebraska and might be interested," Turek said.

Turek admits he was not too optimistic that Cantrell would transfer to Pomona, an NCAA Division II school. But after Turek talked to her in January of 1987, Cantrell decided to enroll at Cal Poly.

"I was pleased with him and the atmosphere there and that's why I decided to enroll," she recalled. "He was very up front and honest with me and I made the decision from there."

Make no mistake, Turek was happy to receive Cantrell.

"Obviously she brings a lot of talent to Cal Poly," he said. "She represents kids coming from the inner city to Cal Poly to continue their education. She also represents other Division I-caliber athletes who would like to attend Cal Poly."

From a more immediate standpoint, the 20-year-old Cantrell has already given a sizeable boost to the prospects of the Broncos' track team since becoming eligible to compete in her first meet March 26. Cantrell has qualified for the Division II nationals in the 100-meter hurdles with a top time of 13.82 seconds and expects to qualify in the 100-meter dash.

Turek thinks Cantrell's future in track is pretty bright.

"I think Lana has tremendous potential in any number of events and I feel that she has the potential to be of world-class caliber," he said. "But there is a lot of work to be done between now and then."

Cantrell admits that she was not thrilled at first over the thought of attending a Division II school, after succeeding at the Division I level.

"It did concern me for a while because I thought I wouldn't have anyone to push me at this level," she said. "But in the long run, it has made me push myself harder. I think it will help me."

Added Turek: "She is a Division I-caliber athlete but a lot of people have misconceptions about Division II. She's going to go as far as she can and she's going to do very well at this level. I think in the next two years she'll be one of the best in the nation at any level. It doesn't matter that she's going to a Division II school."

For Cantrell's part, she is happy about her decision to attend Pomona. "I think it was the right decision for me," she said.

She said she enjoys training under the close scrutiny of Turek, although the workouts are not always easy.

"He keeps pushing you all the time," Cantrell said. "But it's all for you. It's hard to believe when you're cramping up that it's good for you, but it all works out. He knows what he's doing."

Cantrell added that it is also enjoyable having her parents, John and Rita, cheer for her at meets.

"It's nice having them out there," she said. "It's good to have that kind of support when you're competing. It's nice to be closer to home."

Turek said having a Division I-level athlete on the squad is not bad for the team's morale, either.

"I believe it works as a pretty good motivator for the team and if we push together we can do a lot of things," Cantrell said. "There's definitely a lot of respect for me because of my experience in track and field."

Cantrell gained much of her experience in track by competing for four years at Muir, which has been one of the perennial powers in the CIF Southern Section.

She saved her best for the CIF state meet as a senior in 1985, winning the 100-meter hurdles in 13.76 seconds and finishing third in the 300-meter hurdles in 42.36.

Not to mention that she ran the lead leg on Muir's 1,600-meter relay team that produced an all-time state best time of 3:37.69 and the 400-meter squad that holds the state's third-best mark of 45.23 seconds.

"In high school I was pretty flexible," she said. "I was good in a lot of events but I've always seemed to be the best in the 100 (hurdles)."

Cantrell thinks it is the hurdles and relays where she can make her biggest impact for the Broncos, who are hoping for their best finish ever in Division II after placing fifth last year.

"I'm focusing on the conference meet (May 7 and 8 at Cal State Los Angeles) and taking it step by step but I'm definitely looking forward to the nationals," she said.

A good student, Cantrell said competing in track has helped her both physically and mentally.

"I really enjoy track as a stress release," she said. "It gets you away from school and other demands. It's something I just enjoy doing."

After her track career is finished, the sports medicine major wants to pass her training techniques along to others.

"Hopefully I will open up my own gym and use my training techniques in preparing high school athletes for college," she said.

But Cantrell realizes those dreams are still a distance away. For the moment, Cantrell has other hurdles on her mind.

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