SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah women’s track and field program may forever be linked with Lauren McCluskey, the talented athlete whose death 18 months ago still reverberates on campus and in the community.
And that’s fine with Ute track and field coach Kyle Kepler.
“It’s something that our gals consistently remember Lauren, whether it’s her tree or plaque out there, or staying in touch with her parents,” he said. “Several girls were close with her and close with her parents and we remember and try to support them as best we can. We can make sure Lauren is forever a part of our program. We think of her all the time.”
It was a tough few months for the Utes in the aftermath of McCluskey’s murder on the U. campus in October 2018, but the U. track and field team has tried to move on. It just completed one of its best seasons and is looking forward to a bright future.
“It’s been tough, but the strength and character of this group was definitely put to the test and I think they’ve come out the other side and shown how strong they are. But they’ll always be remembering their teammate and making sure that she’s not forgotten.” — Utah track and field coach Kyle Kepler
The Utes had just finished their indoor season and were preparing for the outdoor season when it was all shut down in mid-March along with every other collegiate sport, much to the disappointment of Kepler and his three dozen athletes.
“I thought we made some really good progress,” Kepler recently said, taking time out from the “Daddy Daycare” of his 3-year-old and 9-month-old children. “We had four school records and we saw a lot of kids improve, a ton of PRs, a ton of all-top 10 performances in school history. I’m very pleased.”
Two of the records were set in the 55-meter and 60-meter dashes by sophomore Taylor Watson with times of 7.00 and 7.16, respectively. Kolbi Sims tied the Utah pentathlon mark of 3,891 points set 13 years earlier, which Kepler found remarkable considering that the pentathlon consists of five different events.
A fourth school record was set in the MPSF Championships when Lauren O’Banion, Skyler Blair, Oneillia Fuller and Jackie Martin posted a time of 3:40.39 in the 4x400m relay.
“The girls have been trying to break that for the last couple of years and finally got clicking on the right day,” Kepler said.
Other top performers this year were Sarah Feeny, Sarah Newton, Anna Busatto, Emma Christensen, Brooke Manson and Bella Williams in distance races and Whitney Hessler, Caitlin Faust, Sophie Ryan and Brooklyn James in middle distance races.
The Ute team was quite young this season and while it only had eight seniors on the roster, three were redshirting, so the Utes will only technically lose five members of the team. And with the NCAA allowing seniors to return, the Utes might get two or three of those seniors back, said Kepler.
“If they want to move forward we support that, but if they want to return, we support that,” he said. “All kinds of variables come into play, our job one is to make sure they know all their options and help them choose which one’s best for them.”
Like most of the other spring sports at the U., it’s a challenge for track and field to compete in the Pac-12 against schools that are national contenders year in and year out. While Kepler knows winning a title is unlikely, he bases success on how many athletes they can get to the regional qualifier.
“We feel we had a chance to score points in a variety of events. It’s totally different than cross-country where we had a lot of success,” Kepler said, referring to Utah’s third-place finish in the Pac-12. “ We thought we’d have eight to 10 regional qualifiers and thought we’d pick up some points for one of our better finishes ever (in the Pac-12 meet). It was shaping up to be a pretty good group.”
With such a young team that includes a lot of sophomores and freshmen, the Utes won’t have too many newcomers next year, but Kepler is excited about the girls he has joining the program. Among those who have signed are Annie Murdock from Highland High (400 meters) and Morgan Jensen from Alta High (distance, cross-country).
As for McCluskey, she will never be forgotten by the Utah track and field program.
“It’s been tough, but the strength and character of this group was definitely put to the test and I think they’ve come out the other side and shown how strong they are,” Kepler said. “But they’ll always be remembering their teammate and making sure that she’s not forgotten.”