Hundreds of high school and college track and field athletes will compete at this week’s Willie Williams Classic.
They’ll compete in their special events, ranging from the 100-meter hurdles to the 800-meter run to the shot put.
Then there is Wildcat senior Alyssa Thompson, whose specialty, the heptathlon, requires her to be a master of all of them.
The annual meet opens Thursday with the unseeded high school competition at UA’s Drachman Stadium. Two dozen schools from around the state and El Paso will take part. On Friday and Saturday, the meet will feature Arizona Wildcats athletes, other collegians and the highest-ranked high schoolers.
UA coach Fred Harvey and his staff are eager to assess their athletes’ conditioning. The meet opens the outdoor season for both the UA men’s and women’s teams.
Thompson recalls that as an athlete at Salpointe Catholic High School, she loved “competing before a hometown crowd” at the Willie Williams Classic.
“That meet was almost more important to me than the state meet,” she said.
Not that Thompson shrugged off the state meet: As a Salpointe senior, she won Arizona championships in the long jump, triple jump, 100 hurdles and 300 hurdles.
Thompson’s mother, Loree, a former track athlete at Flowing Wells High School and a heptathlete at Pima College, got Alyssa involved in track when Alyssa was barely 8 years old. The youngster said she took an instant liking to the sport and loved learning about all the different events.
Developing into a top-level versatile athlete, Thompson was a natural for the pentathlon in college, competing in the pentathlon during the indoor season and the heptathlon during outdoors.
Her specialties are, as they say, complicated. The pentathlon involves a grueling series of events — the 60-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump and 800 run — conducted over several hours. The heptathlon, akin to the men’s decathlon event, adds two events — the 200 dash and the javelin — to the indoor five.
Thompson runs, jumps or throws along with other athletes during the competition, but how she places in a meet is based on her performances in each event compared to the sports’ standard scoring table. For example, Thompson might score 800 points in the long jump and 650 in the shot put.
The heptathlon, which is held over two days, will not be conducted at the Willie Williams Classic. Thompson still will be plenty busy, competing Friday and Saturday in the 100, the 100 hurdles, the long jump, the javelin and possibly the triple jump and a leg in the 4x400 relay, said her coach, UA assistant Matthew McGee.
After high school, Thompson won a scholarship to Wake Forest University and as a freshman there, set a school record in the pentathlon. Her hometown and love for the UA began to tug at her heart, and she transferred west.
“Being part of the UA track team has always been a dream of mine,” she said after a practice this week.
In 2016, Thompson had a breakout outdoor season for the Wildcats, placing second in the Pac-12 heptathlon and 12th at the NCAA national finals, earning her second-team All-America status.
Last year, Thompson took a year off from competition to take part in the Eller College’s McGuire Entrepreneurship Program. She was a member of a UA student team engaged in developing a new venture project.
That yearlong project gave Thompson and McGee the time, as he put it, “to dig in and break down things mechanically in all her events — to get her more efficient without having to worry about competition. That’s going to be a bonus for this year.”
Thompson said the redshirt year was beneficial, saying “I’m super glad that timing worked out.”
In February, Thompson broke what she called the “4,000-point barrier,” totaling 4,001 points in the pentathlon at the Texas Tech Shootout.
While that performance was an indoor season highlight, there was also a low point. She was not able to take part in the indoor conference meet — the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships — because she interviewed on that weekend for admission to the UA’s School of Medicine.
Thompson and her coaches had no doubt that going to that interview was best for her career.
“It’s her life. That what was best for her,” McGee said. She is still waiting for word on whether she will be admitted.
Now she is training hard, both at the track and in the weight room, looking toward a standout senior season outdoors. Her best heptathlon score is 5,580. Getting close to scoring 6,000 points in a meet “would be awesome,” she said. “A lot of things would have to go just right.”
Besides her coaches, Thompson has someone close to her who keeps careful track of her heptathlon score. “My mom is an accountant, she’s really good with numbers,” Alyssa said. “When we’re at a meet, she’s always calculating how many points I need for this or for that to get a good total score. She loves to play the numbers game.”
McGee says Thompson “enjoys training and never offers any hesitation, or resistance” to the tough, six-days-a-week training routine.
Freshman discus thrower Turner Washington, a Canyon del Oro High school graduate, will make his Wildcat debut Friday after he redshirted during the indoor season. Washington, last year’s national discus champion, is also expected to compete in the shot put on Saturday.
Last week, three Wildcats competed in the NCAA indoor championships at College Station, Texas.
Jordan Geist, who was named the top field athlete in the region by a coaches association, finished fifth in the shot put. Carlos Villarreal and Claire Green ran in the mile semifinals but came up short of making it to the finals.
The meet is named in honor of Willie Williams, UA head track coach from 1969-82. He was the first African-American head coach at a major American college.