Cut off by Pandemic, Shockers Track & Field Seniors Plan Return in 2021

zack penrod
Senior Zack Penrod will return for a sixth year in 2021 to run for a spot in the NCAA Outdoor Championships. (Courtesy photo)

Zack Penrod planned to attend chiropractic school and reconsidered. Cory Martens wanted to start his career in law enforcement.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the plans for many Wichita State athletes and the track and field team feels those effects in a unique way. Several seniors will return for a sixth year, one for a seventh, to compete in the outdoor track season that begins in March 2021.

“This whole thing has been jarring, but it’s also been a blessing,” said Penrod, a senior distance runner.

All NCAA athletes get five seasons to complete four seasons of eligibility (barring waivers). Track and field is more complicated with an eligibility structure broken into three seasons – cross country, indoor and outdoor track. Those athletes can mix and match their seasons to account for factors such as injury and performance.

A distance runner could, for example, redshirt as a sophomore for cross country and return for a fifth year with only cross country eligibility. Austin Corley, a top hurdler, finished his Shocker career with the 2020 indoor season after redshirting indoors due to injury earlier in his career.

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Some Wichita State seniors are still deciding their future as they weigh academics, financial aid and delaying their next step in life. The Shockers who will return will use that sixth year to chase personal goals and extend their classwork.

Distance runner Rebekah Topham, an All-American in the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Championships steeplechase, can take another shot at that race and help the Shockers in the American Athletic Conference outdoor meet in events such as the 1,500 meters. She scored 22 points in the 2019 outdoor conference meet to earn Most Valuable Performance honors to help the Shockers win the women’s title.

Penrod wants to improve his 1,500 time with an eye on the NCAA meet that he narrowly missed in 2019, the Olympic Trials and professional running. Martens – the seventh-year returner – will continue his pursuit of his first spot in the NCAA meet in the shot put and discus. Hurdler Alexi Whatley is dealing with health issues and hopes to return in 2021 to qualify for the NCAA West Preliminaries.

“A lot of seniors were, after track, getting ready to start their lives, their careers,” Martens said. “I’ve worked so hard for so long and set such high goals that I didn’t want to end my career not being able to finish or even attempt to reach those goals.”

cory martens
Senior Cory Martens plans to compete as a seventh-year senior in 2021 for Wichita State. (Courtesy photo).

Penrod, even before the pandemic, began to reconsider chiropractic school and withdrew his application. The cancellation of the outdoor season gave him time to plan and he was accepted into Wichita State’s MBA program to study business analytics.

“It was such a strange time,” he said. “It’s devastating, but it’s also some sense of relief a couple weeks later when they announce they’re giving eligibility back, because then I have an opportunity to do something.”

Penrod, who won the 2019 American Athletic Conference 1,500 meters, finished less than a second away from qualifying for the NCAA Championships last spring. His time of 3 minutes, 43.07 seconds in the 1,500 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round placed 13th, one spot out of moving to the national meet.

His personal-best time is 3:42.96, from last spring’s Drake Relays.

“I wanted to use this outdoor season as an opportunity to break into the elite running realm, run fast enough to be considered to continue a career as a professional,” he said. “Because 3:42 is good in college athletics, but it’s not great and it’s not good enough to get paid to go run somewhere.”

He will continue to train and can run unattached during cross country and the indoor season before suiting up for the Shockers during the outdoor season.

“There were a couple of weeks where training was super difficult,” he said. “I’ve sort of gotten back into a routine of doing a lot of base training. We’re still trying to solidify a training plan for the next 16 or 18 months.”

Martens, who will earn his master’s degree in criminal justice in May, also believed a big outdoor season awaited. In 2019, he finished third in the discus and the hammer in the conference meet. His progress indicated to him that he could qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championships this spring.

“I had already seen some big marks,” he said. “My goal of reaching Austin (site of the NCAA meet) was definitely in the realm of possibility.”

Whatley will use the time to recover from health issues that she said cause blackouts, a problem she said remains undiagnosed. She hopes to get healthy and train for 2021 in the 400-meter hurdles. She finished 2019 on a strong note, finishing sixth in the outdoor conference meet, and wanted to continue that progress this spring.

“For me, the season being postponed was kind of blessing in disguise,” she said. “Now, I fully get to recover . . . and try to get more answers. I decided to continue my education and get my sixth year so I can have my last season and truly run how we envisioned this year would have been.”

Due to ongoing concerns with the COVID-19 virus, the American Athletic Conference has suspended all spring sporting events until further notice.