Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Often the MacEwan Griffins are the team with the target on their backs when talk turns toward the annual Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference indoor track championship.
But there's no doubt the team everyone is chasing this year resides to the south.
The SAIT Trojans have been busy breaking ACAC records at various meets over the last month and will enter this weekend's championship – hosted by MacEwan University on Friday (live broadcast) and Saturday (live broadcast) at Kinsmen Field House – as favourites for both men's and women's banners.
Yes, even the powerhouse Griffins women's team – which has claimed ACAC team championships in three of the past four seasons, including last year when they won it in a landslide – is no lock to finish ahead of the Trojans.
"It's going to be a very close competition," said MacEwan indoor track coach Drew Carver. "What it comes down to is if all of our runners have a good day, it could go in our favour. If any of our (top) runners don't have a great day, then we could be in big trouble."
A year ago, MacEwan's women's team won every single gold medal available – including three of them by Hannah Leggatt – and claimed the team title by a whopping 49 points over Red Deer College. SAIT was a distant fourth, 70 points back.
The Griffins women's team enters this weekend as favourites in the sprinting events with ACAC 300 and 600 record-holder Nikita Case leading two other top sprinters – Amanda Ntiamoah and Valerie Schlottke. All three will challenge for the 300 title, but Case is coming in the hottest, having just broken her own record in the distance, running a 41.46 time at the Athletics Alberta indoor championship last weekend.
"That tells me that she's running at the top of her game," said Carver. "I expect Nikita to have a great race in the 300 and the 600, but after 600, the 1000, 1500 and 3000 – that all falls on Hannah's shoulders and Roxanne (Skoreyko's). They're in with a tough bunch, so that's where it all changes for us."
That's where the SAIT challenge gets the toughest. Led by Ricki Christopher, who has greatly improved her times from a year ago and has actually run a faster 1500 and 3000 than Leggatt has this season, the Trojans figure to pick up a large amount of points in the longer distances.
Leggatt – the reigning ACAC women's indoor track athlete of the year – will be tasked with being the team's workhorse again.
"Hannah's been working hard, but I know her class-load in nursing is a tough combination to put those two together," said Carver. "It is about her being a student first and an athlete second.
"But the one thing I know about Hannah over the years – I've coached her enough – is race day will come and she'll put her max effort. If we survive the day and come out on top, that's because it worked out. But she won't give in, I know that."
Skoreyko, who had a solid showing at the U SPORTS cross-country championship last fall – will also factor into MacEwan's success. In her final event as a Griffin, she definitely has a shot at the podium, too. She has the third-fastest 1500 and fourth-fastest 3000 of ACAC runners in the field this season.
"With this championship, it gets down to a little bit more of who can recover between races and run the next race," said Carver. "It's not about running the fastest time that day, it's placing. That's the biggest thing. In Hannah's case, she's got to go up against Ricki Christopher, who's running really strong. That's a good challenge for Hannah in that she doesn't necessarily have to beat her in every race, but she can't be losing to her by three or four places. She's got to be right next to her pretty much each step of the way. If that happens and Roxanne has a good race, we're in good."
The Griffins have a larger uphill battle as they vie for their first men's team championship in program history. Although they lost by just six points to the Trojans last season, SAIT has gotten stronger and MacEwan has lost a step due to graduating middle distance workhorse Brandon Toal.
One of their workhorses is still in the mix, though, and that's reigning ACAC men's indoor track athlete of the year, Scott Kohlman. A year ago, he won three silvers and a bronze, while also helping MacEwan to a relay silver.
"This year we're in a different position with Scott," said Carver. "More or less, I would call him the spoiler. He's got to go out there and, in the events he runs, make sure SAIT doesn't sweep the podium. There's maybe one or two other runners … that will also challenge SAIT.
"But Scott and I have talked about it. We're looking at going in the 3000 and the 1500 as his two main events and challenging them there. There's no way he can make the podium as many times as he did last year. We're picking our spot and going for it this time."
MacEwan's Thomas Cross-Trush beat the 300m record of SAIT's Brent Stephen and ruled the ACAC at that distance last year, but the Trojans sprint specialist has returned with a vengeance in 2018 and, last month, took the record back (35.64).
Who will get the last laugh this weekend?
"This is a tough challenge for Thomas because he comes as a 100-200 runner stretching it out to 300," said Carver. "This guy is a 400-600 runner that's got enough power that he can do a really good 300.
"It's just go hard Tom and get to that finish line," he noted. "The 300 metres is a go-hard event. It takes you right to the maximum of your lactic. He's got to go in there, have a good start and power it through right to the finish line.
"Tommy's been training hard. I've been watching him all indoors doing what he can. He's up for the challenge. He's hoping to have his best day ever."
And you never know when home cooking is in the mix. The Griffins are hosting the championship at the fantastic Kinsmen Field House for the first time.
"That's the part we're really looking forward to," said Carver. "This year, we're probably running on the best facility that the ACAC has ever had for a championship. We're hoping to see a lot of times broken and some records to be set in this event. Hopefully that turns out.
"We're looking forward to seeing the whole gang down there. I think it's going to be one of our more exciting championships knowing how strong SAIT is and it's a case of can we hang on and beat them to the punch? Who knows? We'll see what happens. But we're looking forward to it."
ACAC Indoor Track Championship schedule
Kinsmen Field House