Neb-Omaha move to DI keeps track star out of NCAAs

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) Sami Spenner, who recently set the American college record in the pentathlon, would be the favorite to win the event at this week’s NCAA indoor track and field championships.

She’s not going, though. Her school, Nebraska-Omaha, is in the middle of a five-year transition to Division I and is thus ineligible for team and individual championships until 2015-16.

”Obviously, it hurts,” Spenner said. ”I’m just proud I do have a score that’s still top of the nation right now. I wanted the experience of being able to go to an NCAA national meet. I think I deserve to go. But rules are rules, and I can’t get around those right now.”

Spenner’s plight became a hot topic in the track community after she finished second to two-time Olympian Sharon Day-Monroe at the U.S. indoor championships last month. Spenner, the youngest competitor in the field, amassed 4,498 points – the best score ever by a U.S. college woman in the event that combines the long jump, 60-meter hurdles, 800 meters, high jump and shot put.

UNO asked the NCAA to grant Spenner a waiver that would let her compete at the national meet, but an appeal was rejected last week. Athletic director Trev Alberts said he knew it would be a long shot.

”It would be disingenuous for UNO, institutionally, to say we didn’t know what we were getting into when we made the move to Division I,” he said. ”That doesn’t make it any easier for Sami.”

The native of Columbus, Neb., played soccer her first three years in high school and didn’t go out for track until she was a senior. Spenner went to Wayne State College in northeast Nebraska on a volleyball scholarship, but things didn’t work out and she transferred to UNO for the second semester of her freshman year in January 2011.

UNO was still in Division II at the time, and she walked on to the track team for the 2011 outdoor season. A year later, she became a multi-event athlete, and her career took off. She’s been on a full scholarship for two years.

”Every single time I think she’s hit her ceiling, she proves me wrong,” said her coach, Chris Richardson. ”When I think she can’t jump any farther or jump higher or throw farther, she does it.”

In asking the NCAA to allow Spenner to compete at indoor nationals, UNO proposed that the school pay all of Spenner’s expenses rather than accept the travel reimbursement that is standard for championship events.

”I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand the NCAA’s perspective on it because if a person were to be let in, then there would be other people who would say, `I’m in the same situation,”’ Richardson said. ”Where Sami’s situation is so unique is she’s the best of the best right now.”

NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford said the committee that considered Spenner’s appeal noted there was continued support within the NCAA membership for the requirement for reclassifying schools to complete the process before competing for Division I championships.

Spenner could have transferred once it became apparent she had a bright track future. Spenner, who carries a 3.8 grade-point average, said she didn’t want to leave UNO’s acclaimed exercise science program. She graduates in May and she plans to become a physical therapist when her track days are over.

For now, Spenner has shifted her focus to the outdoor season, especially the chance to defend her heptathlon title next month at the prestigious Mt. SAC Relays. She’ll compete in the U.S. outdoor championships and ultimately will set her sights on the 2016 Olympic trials.

”I’m more than thrilled to be able to have that type of performance this year even without the NCAAs,” Spenner said. ”I think that’s God’s way of saying, `You know what, you’re going to do well here and I want you to realize there’s more for you beyond just college nationals.”’