ATHENS — Georgia track and field coach Petros Kyprianou woke up a month ago with a championship vision, confident his men’s and women’s programs were on the verge of indoor titles in Albuquerque, N.M.
But just one day later, on March 12, the national track event and the collegiate sports world came to a stop on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last weekend was supposed to be the Spec Towns Invitational, a breakout event for the Bulldogs’ men’s and women’s outdoor track programs after each finished ranked in the top five at the end of the indoor season.
Like any track coach, Kyprianou places great value on timing, and the missed opportunity in New Mexico still irritates him.
“It stinks, because our track programs have been very successful the last five years, and we had our men’s and women’s team ranked in the Top 5 going into that indoor event,” Kyprianou said. “In this year’s indoor track and field event, the top five teams were very close. There were two to three points between first and sixth.
“So when you’re at that level challenging for both men’s and women’s championship, to learn 20 hours before the start of the first event, it was a big bummer — especially when you’ve been motivating and building your kids up for that moment.”
The fact Georgia baseball had a championship contender this spring was well-documented. Those Bulldogs were 14-4 and ranked No. 3 in the nation when spring sports competition was canceled.
But UGA’s rise in the track ranks has gone somewhat unnoticed, falling short of the sports crossover status reserved for only the most elite of non-revenue sports.
Georgia’s rather nondescript track facility, the Spec Towns Track off Lumpkin Street, offers little evidence a championship level program resides within it.
Only the most observant make note of the wind banner on the football practice field video tower that celebrates the 2018 women’s indoor title, the 2018 men’s outdoor title and Keturah Orji’s Bowerman Award.
They are mere hints of what Kyprianou has accomplished leading the program and the powerhouse Georgia track & field has become.
The 2019 season was supposed to be a rebuild, yet the mens’ team finished fourth at the outdoor meet and tied for ninth in the nation at the indoor meet.
Before the 2018 championship season, the Bulldogs set school records in 2017 with 13 SEC titles and eight NCAA individual titles.
Tracing Kyrprianou’s success back, it was his ability to win the recruiting battle for Marietta’s Kendell Williams — the nation’s top recruit in 2014 — and then Orji, in 2015.
Williams and Orji combined to win 15 NCAA individual titles in their career. During her final year in 2018, Orji led Georgia to the women’s team first national championship.
That certainly captured the attention of Texas high school track sensation Matthew Bolling, whose presence on campus has help lift the program’s image.
Bolling, Kyprianou believes, was also on the verge of breaking out at the national indoor meet and outdoor season.
“He was ranked in the top four in the country even though he had never ran indoor events, however the kid was was improving like crazy,” Kyprianou said. “He was just coming into his own indoors, and he had started taking down some big names and was ready to go in New Mexico. And then we get sent back home.
“Outdoor season was when he supposed to be taking over the world as freshman, but that didn’t get to happen, either.”
Bolling might be the biggest name on the track team — in part because of the role he played in Kirby Smart’s practical joke on the Georgia football team last fall.
But there are several other track stars on the rise in the UGA program, including the following seniors who are eligible for another season in 2021:
• All-America fifth-year senior women’s pole vaulter Kayla Smith (will be applying for a sixth year)
• All-American women’s distance runner Jessica Drop
• Women’s javelin thrower Marie-Therese Obst
• All-American and women’s 2020 SEC indoor 800m champion Amber Tanner
• All-American and men’s 2017 SEC indoor high jump champion Darius Carbin
Georgia signed eight 5-star track athletes in Nov. 2018, and while scholarship numbers will make that feat hard to repeat, Kyprianou is searching the world for more talent.
“It’s challenging given you only have 12.5 (men’s) scholarships, and 18 scholarships in women’s track,” he said. “The limitations affect everyone, because we can’t see the athletes, personally.”
Kyprianou has proven he can identify and land talent. His 2018 signing class included of this country’s top-ranked student-athletes in their respective events:
•Jasmine Moore (Grand Prairie, Texas) – triple/long jump;
•Julia Fixsen (Shoreview, Minn.) – pole vault;
•Anna Hall (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) – multi-events;
• Shelby Tyler (Noblesville, Ind.) – high jump.
Indeed, Moore went on to be this year’s SEC Women’s Freshman Field Athlete of the Year and was the SEC indoor triple jump champion.
But with social distancing in effect and recruiting travels limited, Kyprianou has shifted his recruiting strategy this offseason.
“My strategy at this point is international recruiting,” said Kyprianou.
The Georgia track coach has an international presence, projected to coach more than 20 track and field athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokoyo before their postponement.
European track athletes are typically more developed at this stage of their career, because of the visibility and popularity of track and field overseas, and the amount of competition.
“They start a little bit earlier, so they are more proven,” Kyprianou said. “With our national championship aspirations, we like to have 5-stars sign with us and go toward the Olympic level, as opposed to trying to find the diamond int he rough.
“And, right now we are not allowed out to find the diamond in the rough, so the strategy is to find the proven athletes moving forward.”
It’s not hard to envision more success for Georgia track when action resumes. You can bet Kyprianou is.
Petros Kyprianou / UGA Sports photo