Ralph Lindeman has overseen a men’s track and field program at Air Force that has seen as much success as any team – particularly in a sport with near-universal participation – at the academy.
Now, he’s ready to see a second team break into that conversation as the Mountain West Track and Field Championships take place this week in Logan, Utah.
“We have our best women’s team ever,” Lindeman said.
Behind high jumper Shelley Spires and a slew of young runners, Air Force’s women could best their previous top finish of sixth place in the conference.
Spires is the standout of the group as the defending Mountain West champion. She finished two spots away from qualifying for nationals last year, and that motivated the junior to drop volleyball this season and focus solely on track. She has since added three inches to her best jump and is tied for fourth in the nation.
But to win another conference title, she’ll have to overcome UNLV’s Kaysee Pilgrim, who has posted the Mountain West’s best jump this season at 6 feet, 1.25 inches.
“The whole attitude is that we just want to be better,” Spires said of the ascension of Air Force’s women’s team. “We don’t want to settle for being at the bottom of the conference when we know we can do better than that. I think it’s just a collective attitude.”
Others who could help the Falcons’ women score at conference include freshman Megan Irvin (who enters with the second-best time in the 400 meters at 53.94 seconds. Sophomore Jaci Smith ranks third in the 5,000 (16:04.68) and 10,000 (33:54.99) and senior Lindy Long is second at 10,000 (33:44.60).
Lindeman points to a few factors that have helped the women improve. First, his staff has found – and then developed – some overlooked gems on the recruiting trail. Included is Irvine, who the Falcons nabbed from Colorado State’s backyard in Broomfield after her numbers late in high school didn’t quite match what she did early in her career. The Falcons stuck with her and she enters the Mountain West meet with a time just three-thousandths of a second off the league’s best in the 400.
The other turning point was the breakthrough career of graduated distance runner Hannah Everson, a Liberty product who turned herself into one of the nation’s elite.
“They all started saying, ‘I want to do what Hannah did,’” Lindeman said. “I’d say she was a trailblazer. To use a track cliché, she raised the bar for this group of women that we have.”
On the men’s side, Air Force enters needing an upset to overtake Colorado State for the title.
The Falcons’ program has long been known for its pole vaulting prowess, and again enters with the top rank in that event behind senior Kyle Pater (18-0.5). But the team has added strong sprinting with individuals posting the conference’s best times this season in the 100 meter (senior Zach Johnson at 10.41), 200 (junior Jamiel Trimble at 20.57) and 400 (sophomore Sedacy Walden at 46.49).
The Falcons’ 400 meter relay team is the defending champion and has again recorded the fastest time this year at 40.10.
Johnson could become Air Force’s first Mountain West champion in the 100.
“It would be a lot of fun,” the senior from Farmington, N.M., said. “It’s an event that everyone watches at the Olympics and things like that, so it would be a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a cadet doing it.”
The Falcons have won five men’s indoor and outdoor conference titles in the past six years, and Lindeman found the words to express his desire for more in a book written by former NFL – and Air Force – coach Bill Parcells.
“Winning is like a narcotic,” Lindeman said. “Championships are a narcotic. Once you’ve tasted one, you can’t get rid of that taste and you want it more and more and more. Not a good thing to say to cadets, probably, but it was a thing I got from Bill Parcells.”