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Team Title Key Issue for UCLA

TIMES STAFF WRITER

UCLA’s Suzy Powell competed in the Olympics after winning the 1996 U.S. Olympic discus trials, but she never has won an NCAA championship, team or individual.

The last chance she’ll get starts today.

Seilala Sua, another of the Bruins’ stable of standout throwers, won an NCAA title in the discus last year as a freshman.

But the team championship is one of the things Sua has her eye on at the NCAA track and field championships today through Saturday at Buffalo, N.Y.

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“We have the potential this year,” Sua said. “Our sprinters give us so much more assurance this year, and we know we can do our job.”

The UCLA women definitely have a shot at the title--in part because of the shotput, an event the Bruins swept at the Pacific 10 championships last month at Stanford. Sua was first, Nada Kawar was second and Rachelle Noble was third.

But despite winning the conference title--as did the Bruin men--the UCLA women slipped from No. 1 in the nation to No. 2 in the final poll, in part because of an injury to hurdler Joanna Hayes.

Hayes collapsed at the finish line because of a strained and cramped hamstring after winning the 100-meter hurdles and won’t compete in the 400 hurdles at the NCAA meet, but will try to go in the high hurdles and relays.

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That leaves top-ranked Texas as the favorite, with Louisiana State, winner of the last 11 women’s titles, the team to be unseated.

USC’s women are ranked fifth, led by sprinter Torri Edwards, who won the 200 meters at the Pac-10 meet, and Grazyna Penc, who has the fastest 1,500-meter time in the nation this season at 4:15.13.

There is a champion of long standing on the men’s side, too, with Arkansas looking for its seventh consecutive title. UCLA is No. 7, USC tied for 15th.

The standout on the Bruin men’s team is Mebrahtom Keflezighi, a native of Eritrea, who won the NCAA 5,000- and 10,000-meter titles last season, but saw Arizona’s Abdi Abdirahman pull off the double at the Pac-10 championships. Keflezighi was second in the 10,000.

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USC, which finished third at the Pac-10 meet after last year’s milestone conference championship and third-place NCAA finish, has a defending NCAA champion in hammer-thrower Bengt Johansson. Johansson’s victory gave USC its fifth hammer title in a row after four by 1996 Olympic gold medalist Balazs Kiss.

USC’s star is junior Jerome Davis, a soft-spoken leader, who has won the Pac-10 title in the 400 three years in a row, beating the field by nearly a second in 45.44 this year. Davis was third at the NCAA championships last season and raised eyebrows with an early-season victory over world-class quarter-miler Tyree Washington at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in April.

“Last year, Tyree was ranked No. 2 in the world and beat Michael Johnson,” USC Coach Ron Allice said. “I don’t know how ready he was, but he was under the impression Jerome had been racing a couple of months, and he hadn’t. I don’t want to create a rivalry situation, but Tyree was upset he was beaten. I’m sure they’ll see each other again in the U.S. championships.”

No group of athletes on either of the local teams bears watching more than UCLA’s women throwers.

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“Those four girls are by far the greatest group of throwers any school has ever had. It probably will not happen like that again,” said Art Venegas, the Bruins’ throwing coach.

Sua was first in the shotput at the Pac-10 meet, second in the discus to Washington’s Aretha Hill and third in the hammer. As a sophomore, she is only beginning to reach her potential.

“The physical talent is just overwhelming,” Venegas said.

Noble won the hammer, was second in the javelin and third in the shotput. Kawar was second in the shotput and fifth in the discus.

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Powell, who won Pac-10 titles in the discus and javelin last year and was second in both events at the NCAA meet, was a somewhat disappointing third in the discus and fourth in the javelin at the Pac-10 meet.

But she’s thinking of a team title too.

“Suzy is driven by it,” Venegas said.


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