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Baylor track teams hope 'load management' pays off in finishing kick

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Former national champion Aaliyah Miller has run just three 800 races this outdoor season, but she believes she’s poised for a big finish to her final year at Baylor.

Load management sometimes is greeted like an expletive among modern sports fans. But here’s the thing — teams wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.

Baylor head track and field coach Michael Ford isn’t about to apologize for occasionally resting his athletes or limiting their workload. He described it as a “pitch count,” monitoring just how far to stretch a performer before pulling the plug. The idea is this — let’s be at our strongest, our freshest, at the end of the season.

Ford is about to see if the strategy works.

“I actually feel really good about how the team is performing,” Ford said. “Really, the last month or so, they’ve been coming along. I think we’re getting some kids back healthy. I think right now, we’re just trying to keep them mentally sharp for this meet.”

The meet in question is the Big 12 Outdoor Championships, which will be held Friday through Sunday at Texas Tech’s Fuller Track and Field Complex. It’s the start of the finishing postseason kick for the Bears, who have the NCAA West Prelims and the NCAA Outdoor Championships remaining after this weekend’s conference meet.

Most track coaches seek to be smart about how they manage an athlete’s load. Baylor senior hurdler Jayson Baldridge described the NCAA track season (including both the indoor and outdoor campaigns) as “one of the longest in the NCAA.” He’s not being hyperbolic, either. The indoor track season starts in January and passes the baton to the outdoor season, which wraps in June. That six-month marathon is a good two months longer than a college football season, and a full month longer than a basketball, baseball or softball campaign.

So, how do these athletes manage it? How do they best navigate the grind in order to keep themselves healthy?

Well, practically speaking, it starts long before the first starter’s pistol is fired.

“It’s a lot of planning,” said Baldridge, who ranks second nationally and No. 1 in the Big 12 in the 400-meter hurdles. “A lot of meeting and planning with Coach Ford and talking to him about what I want to do throughout these seasons. What my goals are for indoor track, what my goals are for outdoor track. Just outlining what exact events I’m going to do at each meet. I knew in December exactly what I was going to at every single track meet, in terms of event.”

It can be a tricky balancing act. Obviously these athletes are competitors and they want to show their stuff. But staying healthy is paramount. Baldridge knows this as well as anyone. He’s dealt with multiple hamstring injuries throughout his five-year career at Baylor. This season he has managed to stay healthy and fresh throughout, and he considers that a blessing from above.

He said that he started to get emotional at the Michael Johnson Invitational earlier this year seeing people like former Baylor quarter-miler coach Clyde Hart and volunteer coach Kenneth Wiethorn, men that knew well his battles to stay on the track.

“(They’ve) seen me go through the surgeries, go through tearing my hamstrings and then to see me enjoy this time, my last season in college and everything, it’s been a blessing,” said Baldridge, who has a season-best time of 49.10 in the 400 hurdles. “I’m excited to be here and excited to be healthy and hopefully going to end the season the right way.”

Similarly, another Baylor veteran who has picked her spots this year is Aaliyah Miller. The sixth-year senior dealt with her own time on the sideline earlier in her career, but bounced back strong in 2021, including winning the NCAA indoor title in the 800.

She has logged only three 800 races this outdoor season. But it’s by design, not due to any sort of ailment.

“I just really wanted to focus on where my peak is and just race smart,” Miller said. “Especially looking to run against pros later on, their season is tailored to more toward June and July rather than college athletes, who have to run fast January through June. Just wanted to change something up a bit. It’s my last year and I was really thankful that the coaches really supported that and I’m just really excited to see where all my hard work is going.”

Behind the likes of Miller in the 800, Ackera Nugent in the 100-meter hurdles, Caira Pettaway in the sprints and others, the 11th-ranked Baylor women are a threat to pile up 100 points at this weekend’s Big 12 meet. Such a finish would likely put them in the top three in the team standings, which is their stated goal.

The BU men are ranked 10th nationally, but they tend to score higher at the quality-driven NCAA meet than the quantity-heavy conference meet. Ford is shooting for a top-six finish for the team, which would still register a bump up from recent seasons, as they haven’t finished higher than eighth at the ultra-competitive Big 12 meet in the past three years.

Baldridge and his freshman teammate Nathaniel Ezekiel are both threats to claim a Big 12 title in the hurdles, as their long-term goal is to try to go 1-2 at nationals. Another freshman, Zaza Nnamdi, stacks up as the overwhelming favorite in the javelin. He currently leads the country with a best toss of 265-11.

So, finals are over. No more resting, no more sitting out. It’s go time for the Bears. There’s no reason to hold back now.

“This is the fun part,” Miller said. “You do all the hard stuff in the fall, but you get to run fast and put on a uniform, represent Baylor and try to win the conference title. There’s really no better thing than that. Just try to soak it all in.”

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