CEDAR FALLS — A sophomore from Burlington will represent Northern Iowa men’s track and field at the NCAA Championships this week.
Jacob Smith enters Wednesday’s trio of 400 hurdles heats seeded 10th of 24 competitors. For Smith to advance to Friday night’s championship race, it will require a top-eight overall finish.
Most recently he ran a personal-best 50.13 at the NCAA West Prelims, good for No. 2 all-time at UNI.
Smith’s progression as a Panther has been rapid. He was an All-Missouri Valley Conference honoree as a freshman and a top-30 finisher at last year’s NCAA West Prelims.
UNI head coach Dave Paulsen has high praise for the sophomore’s competitiveness and says he’s on the path to becoming an All-American.
Smith explained that he’s always held high expectations of himself, but acknowledged punching his ticket to Eugene last week was surreal.
“It’s been my dream ever since I started running track,” Smith said. “Once I crossed the finish line I knew I had punched my ticket and I couldn’t believe it. In a sense, yeah, I expect myself to do well at this level, but I didn’t expect it to come this fast. I put the work in. I’ve done what my coaches told me to do and I guess this is the outcome. I’m very blessed and thankful.”
Now, on the eve of the biggest race of his career, Smith says he’s focused on keeping his preparation simple and ordinary. With Smith competing in his first NCAA Championships as only a sophomore, Paulsen says he spoke to his talented hurdler this week
about keeping things simple when competing on college track’s biggest stage.
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“It’s just (about) staying focused on the process — what’s going on,” Paulsen said. “Executing the race and not making it bigger than it is.”
Meanwhile, Smith and his coach both know it will likely require a new career-best time for him to qualify for Friday night’s finals.
“I feel like I’m the type of athlete that performs well under pressure,” Smith said. “I strive in these kind of meets. I feel like I’ve been training for this moment ever since I started this journey. I think a lot of it is the mental preparation going into it. Physically I’m where I need to be. Mentally I’m where I need to be.”
Paulsen was recently recognized by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association as the Midwest Region’s coach of the year.
The Panthers have won two MVC Championships in Paulsen’s two seasons at the helm.
The award marks the third time in two seasons the former Panther All-American has received Coach of the Year recognition.