Ashland University's men's and women's indoor track and field teams begin their 2014-15 season Friday and Saturday at the Kent State Golden Flash Gala.
They do so as two of the highest-ranked teams in Division II – the men ranked second and the women fourth in last week's initial United States Track and Field/Cross Country Coaches Association poll of the new campaign.
Ashland's indoor track and field programs have seen more than their share of success over the years. And even head coach Jud Logan had to take a second look at those rankings.
"We were blown away by the rankings," Logan said. "We know that we have a good team. We know that's only going down the list of who's returning. It certainly doesn't take into account the newcomers in each program.
"We know early-season preseason rankings are what they are. We know that this is probably our most heavily senior-laden team in my coaching tenure. We're going to rely heavily on those seniors. We're excited, but our seniors are going to have to carry this team."
One of the myriad of Eagle seniors this season is two-time USTFCCCA Men's Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year Drew Windle, who also is a two-time national champion in the indoor 800. Can Windle earn an unprecedented third Athlete of the Year honor?
"It's harder to repeat than it is to win," said Logan. "Talk to anyone who's won a national title, you have a bull's eye on your back. I'm confident in Drew's ability. I've been calling him a cocky little kid since his freshman year. He hasn't changed, but he's matured. He's a team-first type of guy.
"The sky's the limit for Drew. I think he can repeat indoors and outdoors. His most productive days are ahead of him, post-collegiately."
Windle also was part of the national title won by the distance relay team last indoor season. Three members of that team – Windle and fellow seniors Brian Baum and Joshua Davis – are back this year, but Logan cautioned that doesn't mean they will be on that relay team.
"They are back, but not all positions are set. We've got some other guys on this team who want to upset the apple cart and make their way on that team," said Logan, who added that the track calling card for Ashland now is the distance relay, whereas in the past, it was the 4x4 relay.
And that 4x4 relay team, which finished fifth at indoor nationals last year, also has three returnees – Windle and fellow seniors Waquiem Comar and Elijha Owens. One of the youngsters who will look to be a part of that team is freshman Halen Witcher.
"Competition is a great thing," Logan noted.
Owens also was fifth in the indoor 60 hurdles at nationals a season ago. Baum took eighth at indoor nationals in the mile, and junior Nick Hall was right behind in ninth.
As impressive as Ashland's men's track competitors are, the Eagle men's field athletes as a group may be off the charts. That's because Logan said there are six or seven weight throwers who could qualify for 2015 indoor nationals, which might very well be unprecedented.
"It's six or seven really strong guys who can go eat up some of those spots in the NCAAs," Logan said.
Senior Zac Ball was second at the 2014 indoor nationals in the weight throw, while senior Jared Conklin was fifth and yet another senior, James Clay Harris, was eighth. Senior Mack Taylor also competed in the weight throw at indoor nationals, sophomore Clayton Jury comes back off redshirt, sophomore Bryn Campbell is an outdoor hammer All-American and is back from an injury which slowed him down last indoor season and another sophomore, Jordan Crayon, is a former Eagle football fullback and NCAA qualifier in the hammer throw outdoors.
"He (Zahn) is being counted on heavily for us to lead that group of real good shot putters," Logan said. "If we can get those seven weight throwers and those three shot putters, that would give us 10 (national qualifiers) in only two events."
The Ashland women throws contingent is led by senior Jessica Bridenthal, the 2014 indoor national champ in the weight throw who also finished second at nationals in the shot put. Joining her is senior Kim Habegger, who Logan expects to return to the national podium; junior Jamie Sindelar, who was fifth in the shot put at indoor nationals in 2014 and is the defending outdoor shot put national champ; and sophomore Megan Tomei, who Logan believes will make indoor nationals in four events – the shot put, weight throw, discus and hammer.
A newcomer into the mix is senior Michigan State transfer Shatora Lewis.
"Her marks previously in the Big Ten show she should be on the podium," Logan said.
Senior Jennifer Bjelac earned a pair of top finishes at the 2014 indoor nationals, placing eighth in both the long jump and the pentathlon. Logan said Bjelac is the leader of the women's jumps group. Fellow senior Jennifer Foster was fourth in the high jump at the last indoor national meet, and she will compete in nine events this season – multi (seven events), pole vault and high jump.
"Jen Foster is trying to take a step this year to try to help us score more points," Logan said. "It's taken us until her senior year for her to be strong enough to do that."
Logan has coached a national-champion thrower in 20 of his 21 seasons at Ashland as head coach and as an assistant. The odds of adding to that this season are high, given that Logan said there is more depth in the throws than the program ever has had.
"We produce high-scoring NCAA points by the way we peak our kids," Logan said, "and we let our kids know from Day 1 – tradition never graduates."
After Kent State, the Eagles don't return to competition until Friday, Jan. 16, at the Northwest Ohio Invite at Findlay.
"This year is a shorter break. We're going to get our team back pretty quickly," Logan said. "We have a saying in our program that champions are made when no one is looking. When they're home on (Christmas) break, they are the ones who have to get in the weight room and find a place to continue their training. The championships in Birmingham will be a great showcase for them. But you have to take care of the little things when no one is watching."