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The Lakeland College track and field team may not have a full roster or a track to call its own, but it does have one member who is knocking on the door of qualifying for the upcoming NCAA Division III national meet.
Freshman Tinashe Ota has only been a student at Lakeland for one semester, but it has not taken him long to make his mark on the track. He left a few strong impressions in the last few meets, putting out his best performances at the Benedictine Invitational on April 21 when he won the long jump with a jump of 22 feet 7.75 inches, took second in the 100 meter dash (10.90 seconds) and third in the 200 meter dash (21.66) to help lead the men's team to a seventh-place finish.
These impressive marks also put Ota in a position to qualify for the 2007 NCAA Division III meet, which will take place at UW-Oshkosh May 24-26, as he was able to surpass the provisional qualification threshold (21.75) with his time in the 200 at Benedictine.
Ota was a national qualifier in all three events for three years in high school in Zimbabwe, where he has lived most of his life after being born in Florida. Despite these previous achievements, Ota's talents on the oval were largely unknown upon his arrival at Lakeland.
"He had come in to talk to me after we had already had our pre-season track meeting," said head track coach David Brooks. "He expressed his interest in joining the team, but I had no idea what type of potential he possessed until I saw the times he listed on the form I had him fill out. Then he started coming out to practices and has continued to improve throughout the season."
Although Ota has yet to surpass the marks he set at the Benedictine meet to earn automatic bids to nationals, he still played an instrumental role in helping the Muskies take fourth at this past weekend's NAC Outdoor Meet.
He captured 28 of the team's total 74 points for the meet, winning the 100 (11.04) and the 200 (22.41) and taking second in the long jump with at 21 feet, .52 inches. Ota also helped elevate the Muskies to a sixth-place finish at the Private College Championship on April 28 (the highest of any Northern Athletics Conference team competing in the meet) by winning the 200 (22.16), taking second in the 100 (11.10) and third in the long jump (21 feet 1.5 inches).
"The past couple of meets he has really been able to perform to his potential," Brooks said. "The first outdoor meet was pretty rainy and crummy, so while he still performed very well, he didn't do as well as he could have. Recently we finally got some nice weather for him and his performances just blew everyone away.
"He's kind of an anomaly because normally in order to do these events you are muscularly built and very flexible. Tinashe is not really either of those two, especially when it comes to flexibility. Right now we're working on getting his legs to loosen up so he can get more distance in his strides, and if we can combine that stride length with his turnover I think he can do something even more remarkable than what he is already doing."
Not only is Ota used to physically challenging himself on the track, but he also found enrolling in college in the U.S. to be a test of his patience as he met with a few road blocks along the way and landed at Virginia College first semester.
"I was supposed to go to UW-Milwaukee for the fall semester, but they had problems with my high school transcripts," Ota said. "Then I needed to find a school fast, so I came here and liked it and decided to transfer here."
This spring has certainly dished out its share of sloppy weather, with snow at the beginning of April, chilly temperatures and untimely rain. However, all of these unfavorable weather conditions have had an even greater impact on Ota, who is used to the relatively balmy running conditions in Zimbabwe.
"The cold has been a challenge to overcome," Ota said. "I'm actually surprised by how successful we have been as a team because of how bad the weather has been. Also, it has been challenging trying to improve when we were unable to go outside in the wintertime or work on our starts or work on jumping of the board because we don't have a long jump pit. That was really stressful."
Lakeland has surprised members of the conference with top performances and high finishes at their past few meets, although the team only consists of seven men and four women and does not compete in any of the throwing events.
"I really don't think they expected us to be as strong as we are right now," Ota said. "I think most of the other coaches are shocked about the progression the team has shown from where we started out the season."
However, a smaller team can have its advantages, as its members have taken the opportunity to bond and support each other whenever possible.
"It's really great getting to know the guys on your team better and becoming closer," Ota said. "On a big team, you wouldn't get to know everyone as well. This way, we are able to do things as a whole team."
Brooks echoes Ota's opinions, as he has enjoyed bonding with the smaller group as well.
"I have enjoyed a lot of the little things we have done together, whether it has been hanging out in the water pit by the steeplechase course relaxing or the bus rides coming home from the meet where everyone is all excited," Brooks said. "It has also been great to see everyone get excited and rally around each other when someone puts in a really great performance, like when a couple of our high jumpers are going over six feet or when Tinashe is just blowing people away in the 200."
Ota will likely compete in a few more meets this month in order to attempt to surpass the national qualification levels and to prepare for the possibility of making the national meet if his provisional qualifying time in the 200 holds.
"My personal goal is to make nationals in all of my events," Ota said. "Since I made it to nationals three times in high school, I knew I would be able to make it to nationals at the college level at some point, but I didn't know I was going to improve this fast."