UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Just a single day separates Penn State track and field from the start of its NCAA outdoor championships campaign in Eugene, Oregon. For 12 Nittany Lions, it's one final chance to close out their outdoor season on the grandest stage, surrounded by passionate support at the historic venue.
For Penn State head coach John Gondak, preparing to compete at the NCAA Championships is way more than simply physical training.
"It's more of the mental challenge of believing that you can compete with the best of the best and believing in yourself and stepping up into your competition with the right mindset that you're ready to go," Gondak said.
Guided by the experience of a mostly veteran group, the cross-country trip also marks the impending end of a few Penn State careers. Instead of dwelling on the bittersweet feeling though, it's all about settling into the right mindset - something Gondak noted he and the staff having truly been working on with the team.
Fresh off a successful performance at the NCAA East Regionals, the Nittany Lions saw everything from nail-biting qualifications and monsoon-like conditions.
"For the most part, it was just kind of a constant drizzle and some wind," Gondak said. "There were periods of time where it was just a monsoon. That's the type of weather you get in Eugene, it just kind of blows in and pours on you for a few minutes and moves on. We don't really practice for that, it's just kind of things you gain from experience and it will help us be prepared next time if we face those type of conditions again."
Moments after one of those fresh pours, sophomore Danae Rivers took off in the second heat of the qualifying women's 1,500 meter run. Clocking the second fastest time of her career (4:11.75), Rivers earned her second career trip to Eugene and first in the event.
"I felt really good in that race," Rivers said. "I knew that the national champion from the mile was also in that race so it was just stick with her and it was kind of interesting to see - it was like a set up race for what's to come at nationals. Just running that pace and riding it out, it honestly felt really good. It prepares me for the semifinals and the finals, just getting to the next round and mentally staying involved and having the passion for it."
With a year experience, Rivers noted her preparation for the task of two 1,500-meter races in essentially three days is right where it needs to be compared to her first experience in Eugene last year.
"I ran the 800 last year so there was a lot of competition," Rivers said. "Coming from high school to college, everybody is on the same playing field so it was a good experience. At that time last year, I was a little drained from transitioning from high school to college, but this year I feel like I'm more prepared and I've had cross country under my belt and I know what's going to happen."
On the more nail-biting side of things, Penn State's men's 4x100-meter relay team featuring freshman Will Henderson, junior Anton Porter, senior Xavier Smith and senior Malik Moffett, waited in anticipation to eventually find out they would qualify for the NCAA Championships by the slimmest of margins.
"We saw the second heat and no teams were faster than us, so we figured we would be alright because we didn't think that six teams out of the next heat were going to make it," Smith said. "Times kept popping up, one by one and it kept getting closer and closer and then when we saw that sixth time and we knew that we were in. With everything at the same time, a whole bunch of emotions hit us."
It's the third trip to the NCAA Championships for Smith, who looks toward finishing his career in the Blue and White with a strong performance.
"It's just going out there and running fearless," Smith said. "When you go out there with a full crowd, especially at nationals, it can get kind of intimidating. Being there my third time, I know that, so it's going out there and running fearless and doing what you can do."
For a few Nittany Lions, this week also marks a final chance to face some unfinished business.
That's exactly the way senior captain Megan McCloskey describes her first trip to the NCAA Championships in her final season.
"I felt like I had unfinished business the last few years and that made it really hard to end the season," McCloskey said. "After qualifying for Eugene this past meet, it was one of those things where I could just breathe and feel like okay, I did what I was supposed to do and I'm where I'm supposed to be. I think it's just going to be soaking it all in and appreciating what this journey has been and getting to have one final trip with the team."
Finishing outside the top 12 at last year's NCAA East Preliminary, McCloskey watched the 12 other student-athletes celebrate their upcoming trip the NCAA Championships. That wasn't the case this year though, as McCloskey recorded a season-best height of 5-10.75, before finding out just moments later she had made the cut.
"It was one of those moments that actually felt a little bit like a dream because I had seen it the last two years and I was on the other side of it and kind of bummed out," McCloskey said. "I got to watch those girls feel really excited and happy, and then I was one of them."
Junior Isaiah Harris also finds himself more motivated than ever this year, having finished as the NCAA runner up in the men's 800-meters last year.
"I think he can contend for a national title," Gondak said when asked about his expectations for Harris. "Unfortunately he's up against the number one ranked 800 meter runner in the world right now so it will be a challenge but Isaiah is a gamer and he fights to the very end. He's going to give it his very best and we'll see if we can come away with a national championship."
It's a simple formula for Harris, who notes, when it comes down to it anyone can win in a race, it all depends on who shows up to take it.
"Last year I wanted to win and I really thought I could win but this year it's like I need to win," Harris said. "I want to win so bad so I guess my drive internally is a little bit higher than it was last year."
Hardly changing much in the span of year, Harris relies on the trust of his training and training partners, knowing that his head coach has just the right plan to get him peaking at just the right time.
"Every day in practice, we have a really good group of guys who I train with all the time," Harris said. "We all push each other and we all are a little competitive sometimes. Someone will run a rep a little faster to challenge everyone else, so we really just work together to make each other great and it pays off in the end."
Regardless of individual performances though, if there's anything each Nittany Lion can agree on, it's the incredible atmosphere at Hayward Field - a place where seemingly anything is possible with a bit of a boost from the support.
"It's hard not to step it up when you get out there because it's such a great atmosphere," Harris said. "There's so many fans and you just have the adrenaline and everyone ends up performing amazing. You see it every year, something big always ends up happening. It's a great atmosphere."