GENEVA, Ohio - Mick Byrne frequently uses the term "Badger Tough" to describe how his cross country team competes. It's a compliment, suggesting they run with grit, determination and heart.
On Saturday, Byrne needed his track and field team to compete with the same mindset, and boy, did they ever.
Thanks to conference titles in the heptathlon, weight throw and 5000 meters on Saturday, the No. 4-ranked Wisconsin men's track and field team edged out No. 21 Nebraska to win the team title at the 2014 Big Ten Indoor Championships and defend its crown from a year ago.
Down by 21 points to the Cornhuskers with four events to go, the Badgers used tremendous performances by Michael Lihrman in the weight throw and Collin Taylor in the high jump, and gusty efforts by Mohammed Ahmed, Reed Connor and Malachy Schrobilgen in the 5000 meters to take an 8.5-point lead heading into the 4x400 relay, the final event of the weekend.
In the weight throw, one of the most anticipated events of the weekend that featured the nation's top four throwers, Michael Lihrmancame out on top to give UW a much-needed 10 points.
After setting an NCAA Division I record with a throw of 79 feet, 7 1/2 inches at the Red & White Open last weekend, the junior was in top form again Saturday. Lihrman used a heave of 78-0 1/4, the second best throw of his career, to win the loaded event and set a new Big Ten meet record.
"Michael Lihrman came out on top and showed he is ready to compete at the highest level and is ready for the NCAA championships down the road," said Byrne, who is in his first season as UW's director of track and field and cross country.
In addition, Taylor used a leap of 6-11 1/2 in the high jump to finish runner-up and add eight valuable points to Wisconsin's team score.
But perhaps the most remarkable finish came in the 5000 meters, where Ahmed, Connor and Schrobilgen finished 1-2-3 to give the Badgers 24 points they desperately needed.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything like that," Byrne said. "On paper, optimistically, we thought we could score 18 points. But we went over to those guys before the race and told them the meet was all on them.
"To get 24 points, that's incredible."
Ahmed knew the trio was up for the challenge.
"(Byrne) said big points were on the line, 16 at least, and I'm like, `Okay, we can definitely do that," Ahmed said.
"It's Badger Tough," Byrne said. "It was the response we wanted, especially from team leaders like Reed Connor and Mo Ahmed."
Ahmed, who placed fourth in Friday's 3000 meters after leading most of the way, dominated the 5000, winning the event by a whopping five seconds in a facility-record 13 minutes, 44.32 seconds. The senior and 2012 Olympian pulled away from the pack with two kilometers to go and never looked back, claiming the title after finishing runner-up in the event at last year's conference indoor meet.
"It wasn't really on my mind to get the individual title," Ahmed said. "It was more about getting 10 points for the team and getting the team title. That is the thing we will remember forever."
Teammates Connor and Schrobilgen used impressive late-race kicks to finish second and third, respectively, in the 5000. Despite getting pushed back to sixth in the crowded race, Connor fought hard and found the energy to move up to second with two laps to go, a position he wouldn't relinquish, finishing runner-up in 13:49.79.
"Reed is on another level right now," Ahmed said. "He is having a great year."
Running his first collegiate indoor 5000, Schrobilgen was sitting back in the back for most of the race, but with two kilometers to go he used a strong push to finish third in 13:51.56.
"What an incredible performance by Malachy Schrobilgen," Byrne said. "A redshirt freshman running 13:51 in a conference championship? I bet if you look around the country at results over the last 24 hours, there is no conference championship that went that fast."
"When I saw him in third, it was a double-take," Ahmed said. "I was like, "Oh my God, he's in third, he's in third!' He is amazing. I trusted in him, but to come in third, to go 1-2-3 was beautiful.
"It is something to remember."
When Nebraska, which entered the 4x400 relay with the top seed, finished second and the UW quartet of Babatunde Awosika, Aaron Thompson, Ryan Davis and Tyler Woloszyk finished fifth (3:10.50), Wisconsin secured the conference title.
"We challenged our kids last night at our team meeting," Byrne said. "We knew it was going to come down to the last couple events. We told our guys they would have to be Badger Tough. They get it.
"We are Big Ten champions."
The Big Ten track championship is the first for Byrne, who took the reigns after Ed Nuttycombe retired last August. The Badgers have won 25 Big Ten indoor championships all-time, including 10 of the last 15 conference titles.
But the Badgers would never have been in position to rally for the team title had it not been for UW's 20-point effort in the heptathlon.
Japheth Cato became the first-ever four-time Big Ten champion in the heptathlon, winning the seven-event discipline with 5,837 points. The senior entered the final three events on Saturday in third behind teammate Zach Ziemek and Michigan State's Kurt Schneider, but used victories in the 60 hurdles and pole vault to help secure the title.
"You can't say enough about the guy," Byrne said. "What he had to do yesterday, be at that meet from 9 a.m. and still competing at 7:30 p.m. last night, it is just incredible. He stepped up to the plate when we needed him to and I don't know if we could have squeezed anything else out of that kid. It was remarkable."
Cato began the day by winning the 60 hurdles in 8.08 seconds, an event in which he is the only UW athlete to ever run 8.10 or under, doing it six times in his career.
He then really separated himself by winning the pole vault with a clearance of 17-0 3/4. Schneider, who led the heptathlon heading to the pole vault, could only clear 14-5 1/4, allowing Cato to gain a 241-point advantage in the event.
Cato was then able to run a relatively stress-free 1000 meters, finishing 14th in 3:02.26 to win the event.
"After the five-meter vault bar I knew I had a little bit more cushion to do what I had to do in the 1000 meters," Cato said.
Ziemek totaled 5,815 points and finished runner-up to Cato for the second-consecutive conference meet. The junior placed third in the 60 hurdles in a personal-record 8.33, and like Cato, gained a significant advantage over Schneider in the pole vault by clearing 16-0 3/4. His ninth-place finish in the 1000 meters (2:54.16) cemented his second-place finish overall, just 23 points shy of Cato's winning total.
"We had a plan going in and we just need to take 1-2 for the team," Ziemek said.
Cato and Ziemek have combined to record the top nine heptathlon scores in Big Ten history, and the duo own 10 of the 11 conference scores that have surpassed 5,800 points.
"It's always very, very competitive, with a guy like Ziemek on my back for two years," Cato said. "With all the competitors, it's been a very rough, yet exciting road."
Charlie Foss finished the day seventh overall with 5,211 points, adding two points to UW's team total and beating his previous-best score of 5,025, set earlier this season at the Bill Bergan Invitational.
Foss set a personal record in the 60 hurdles in 8.57, good for seventh place, finished ninth in the pole vault by clearing 13-9 1/4 and crossed the finish line 13th in the 1000 meters in 3:02.12.
"It was huge for us to get three guys scoring," Ziemek said. "To get 20 points from the multi-events really boosted our team score and helped us get the team title."
Wisconsin would not have won the title had it not been for the valuable contributions of Austin Mudd, Alex Hatz and Babatunde Awosika.
In the finals of the 800, Mudd earned a runner-up finish and eight points for UW, barely losing out to Penn State's Brannon Kidder, who also won the event last season. Mudd completed the race in 1:49.56, just a fraction of a second behind Kidder (1:49.52), who won with a lean at the finish line.
In the mile, Alex Hatz added six points to UW's score by placing third in 4:16.12, while Awosika scored an additional point with his eighth-place performance in the 200 (21.71).
Tyler Woloszyk, who competed in the 600 meters, placed ninth in 1:18.67, missing out on point-scoring opportunity by half a second.
Wisconsin finished with 122.50 total points, while Nebraska was second with 118. No. 7 Penn State took third (72 points), while Illinois (71.50) and Purdue (61) rounded out the top five.
The Badgers will now turn their attention to the NCAA indoor championships in Albuquerque, N.M., in two weeks, March 14-15, to close out the 2014 indoor season.
For Cato and Ziemek in the heptathlon, the goal is simple.
"1-2 baby," Cato said. "Let's go."
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