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Youthful Virginia travels to ACC Championships

Team seeks to improve on disappointing end to indoor season

Virginia track and field opened its outdoor season just four weekends ago with the Virginia Cup in Charlottesville. Now, the team is already preparing for the start of the conference championships — such is the nature of track and field in the ACC. Beginning Thursday, the Cavaliers will compete for three days against conference foes for this season’s title.

Virginia’s foray at the ACC Indoor Championships at the end of February did not go according to plan. The women’s team finished in a 10th-place tie with Syracuse, and the Cavalier men placed sixth. Virginia is a talented but young team, and the collective inexperience showed.

The outdoor season has allowed the youthful Cavaliers to age and mature, and coach Bryan Fetzer hopes they will respond better to the pressures of a championship meet.

“I wish there was a magic pill that turned freshmen into seniors,” Fetzer said. “Athletes improve with maturity, learning, and the whole process of growing up. All season they’ve responded pretty well, but we still have a long ways to go.”

With such a freshman-heavy team, the onus is on Virginia’s upperclassmen to lead during the ACC process. Junior jumper Ryan Satchell is one such leader — making his third ACC Championships appearance.

“It is my job to show them the little things — what to do and when and how to warm up,” Satchell said. “It is easy to lose your focus at a big meet like ACCs, so I have to show them how not to get distracted.”

Freshman thrower Filip Mihaljevic may have swallowed Fetzer’s magic pill. So far, the young Bosnian has remained unfazed in tough competition during his brief career at Virginia. In only his second collegiate meet and against stiff competition at the Texas Relays, Mihaljevic won his section of the shot put.

Mihaljevic has already proven his skills — his mark of 60’ 7.75” in the shot put is 28th best in the nation this season, and he holds the ninth best result in the discus throw at 198’ 2”.

“[Mihaljevic] is an incredible competitor,” Fetzer said. “He is a gamer, he steps up in big meets, and I don’t anticipate anything different happening at ACCs.”

Junior sprinter Jordan Lavender has also had a stellar 2013-14 campaign so far, and shows no signs of slowing down. During the indoor portion of the season, Lavender set the school record in the 400-meter dash and competed in the same event at the NCAA Indoor Championships, where she finished 12th.

Lavender converted the momentum of the indoor season to a strong outdoor season. During the Michigan-California Tri-Meet she ran a 52.57 in the 400-meter — then the fastest time in the nation this year, though it has since slipped to fifth-best.

The 400-meter field at ACCs will test Lavender’s mettle. Four other ACC athletes join Lavender on the top-15 list of the event.

“The ACC has become the premier conference for the 400,” Fetzer said. “Lavender has to bring her A-game. She’s focused and she knows she has a heavy weekend ahead of her.”

Junior Payton Hazzard has long served as the workhorse of the men’s team. He has the ability to win any event, from the 100-meter dash to the 800-meter run, and anchor any winning relay team. During the Tri-Meet, he contributed 21 points toward the team’s second-place effort.

In North Carolina, Hazzard’s effort will play a large role in where the team finds itself by the end of the weekend.

“Hazzard is our version of a five-tool player,” Fetzer said. “He is someone who can do everything, and they come few and far between. We always expect a lot out of him.”

Fetzer said he firmly believes his team can post a better performance at the Outdoor Championships than they did at Indoors. What the Cavaliers need now is the correct mindset and a willingness to compete.

“It is all about taking it one day at a time and handling what you are supposed to do,” Fetzer said. “A young team starts to look ahead too much and lose sight of the task at hand. We have to worry about what we are doing now, and not worry about Saturday.”

Competition begins on Thursday at the Belk Track, Fetzer Field and Finley Field in Chapel Hill, N.C.