NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships
When: Wednesday through Saturday.
Where: Eugene, Ore.
CU qualifiers: Men — Pierce Murphy (10K); Morgan Pearson (5K); Adam Peterman (steeplechase). Women — Maddie Alm (1,500); Kaitlyn Benner (5K); Mackenzie Caldwell (10K); Erin Clark (steeplechase); Val Constien (steeplechase); Dani Jones (1,500).
Pierce Murphy never envisioned the long and wildly successful road he embarked upon when he arrived at the University of Colorado almost five years ago.
In the fall of 2011 Murphy was a soft-spoken, lightly regarded recruit out of Hawaii with a natural penchant for distance running but, by his own admission, one who lacked the inner passion that typically separates the good from the great.
In the spring of 2016 Murphy remains soft-spoken, yet his ascension into the ranks of the all-time great CU distance runners has occurred through the same strong, steady pace and even-keeled demeanor that will make him one of the favorites for the 10-kilometer national title this week at the NCAA finals in Eugene, Oregon.
"It's the training, the mindset, and just being patient," Murphy said. "Coming in here my freshman year, my sophomore year, I just had to do what coach (Mark Wetmore) told me knowing I wasn't going to run and I redshirted. Sophomore year I started to get fast, but it got frustrating at times knowing that your teammates are running great.
"Of course, they were older than me and I just wanted to be at their level. I just had to be patient and wait for that time. Some people ... either they do that or they get hurt and they rush things, or they train too hard and don't recover and they just never improve. Patience and hard training."
Murphy won state titles while setting state records during his senior year of high school, where he also won the state's Gatorade Athlete of the Year honor for both track and cross country.
Yet Murphy lacked serious competition on his island home, often winning races by such comfortable margins he could throttle down and cruise through the stretch run of his races.
The times Murphy accumulated weren't typically the sort that make the cut at a vaunted distance-running institution like CU. Even Wetmore admits, "We probably would not have taken the same person with the same acclaim from Southern California."
Yet Wetmore also has been around long enough to analyze the talent of young runners against the merit of their competition. And Wetmore couldn't help but be somewhat swayed by the insistence of Murphy's father, Shawn, that his son indeed was a legitimate Division I-caliber runner.
"His father was an advocate, and I hear that from dads all the time, but this time he had a point," Wetmore said. "Pierce came from a place that doesn't have the highly competitive, dog-eat-dog high school track history. The performances in Hawaii were good, but he had to fly five hours to the mainland to go against good competition. We knew there was more there and he could do well against better competition."
Murphy didn't immediately set the running world afire at CU, redshirting for his true freshman cross country season as a walk-on and running in just one outdoor meet the following spring. He began making progress as a sophomore, finishing 39th in a title-winning team effort for CU at the cross country nationals and finishing third the following spring in the 10K at the Pac-12 Conference track and field championships.
Last year, Murphy finished fifth in the 10K at the NCAA nationals and followed that up last fall by finishing third at the cross country championships. After placing second in the 10K at the NCAA West Preliminaries last week, Murphy will be in the hunt for the first national title in any event by a CU men's track and field athlete since 1998.
Not bad for a young man who wasn't exactly beating away recruiters in high school.
"I haven't really thought about it being my last race in a CU uniform," Murphy said. "I'm more just focusing on the race itself. When I think about the race I try not to think about races I've run before or races coming up. I just focus on that same one. But, yeah, all the things I've done in track and cross country throughout my CU career is nothing I thought of when I came here. I never thought I'd get to that level."
It's a list of accomplishments Wetmore knows will make Murphy a part of the program's lore, regardless of how his final run as a Buffalo fares.
"I've been doing this a long time and often get asked what keeps me going," Wetmore said. "I've got championships and trophies, what else is there? It's seeing young athletes improve and get better. Pierce is one of many examples of that. He's been a real joy to have in the program and they'll be talking about him the next three to four years. As new runners come in, Pierce Murphy will be the standard."
In the 10K field on the women's side, Murphy will be joined by sophomore teammate Mackenzie Caldwell, who is showing signs of making a similar career arc as Murphy. Caldwell finished eighth at the West Preliminaries last week after placing 41st in that same event last year.