Marcus Popenfoose made his first year at Auburn University look easy, qualifying for the NCAA outdoor track and field nationals in the shot put and discus.
Getting back to nationals, however, has not been as easy.
Popenfoose, a junior for the Tigers, will travel Sunday to Eugene, Ore., for next week’s national meet. He will throw the shot put at the NCAA meet after missing nationals a year ago.
“I had some struggles,” said Popenfoose, a Huntley graduate. “It was mechanical stuff. I came into my sophomore year with big expectations. When I didn’t see results immediately, I tried to muscle every throw. That’s just not the way to do things.”
Popenfoose made his junior season memorable last month when he unleashed a personal-best throw of 62 feet, 2˝ inches to win the Southeastern Conference outdoor title in Columbia, Mo.
“It’s definitely a great feeling,” said Popenfoose, who finished fifth at the conference’s outdoor meet last season.
At last weekend’s NCAA East Regional in Greensboro, N.C., Popenfoose extended his season by placing 10th with a throw of 59-11 to earn a return trip to nationals.
“It was a relief,” he said. “I made it my goal to get back there. I didn’t throw my best (at the regional), but I made it through.”
Though winning the conference title was a career highlight, Popenfoose wants to make headlines at nationals. He hopes to earn All-America honors, which would mean a top-eight finish.
“That’s the biggest stage,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always been most concerned about.”
Popenfoose said he appreciates his return to the national stage after having gone through difficult times.
“You’re not going to do well all the time,” he said. “Everybody experiences peaks and valleys. You just have to work through the valleys to get to those peaks. If you’ve never failed, then success doesn’t taste as great.”
Headed to Eugene: Notre Dame sophomore Carly Loeffel is among 24 qualifiers for the NCAA women’s outdoor nationals in the heptathlon.
Loeffel, a Cary-Grove grad, automatically qualified for the event by placing second in last month’s Big East Conference outdoor meet with 5,411 points. Loeffel, who won the event’s javelin competition (111-4) and tied for first in the high jump (5-6˝), earned all-conference honors while helping Notre Dame’s women’s team win its second conference title in school history.
Fellow C-G grad Eddy Gibbons, a junior, was a member of ND’s Big East champion men’s 4x800 relay team, which won the event in 7:34.19. He earned All-Big East honors by running the second leg of the relay for the Irish, who placed second as a team.
Missouri Valley masters: Cary-Grove grad Eric Aguilera (Illinois State) and Prairie Ridge’s Kevin Kaczmarski (Evansville) were chosen as All-Missouri Valley first-team baseball players in voting by the league’s head coaches.
Aguilera, a senior outfielder, batted a team-high .346 for the Redbirds (39-19) while helping them to their first outright MVC regular-season championship in school history. Aguilera, who started every game for ISU, led the team in six offensive categories this season, including hits (80), home runs (seven), RBIs (58) and slugging percentage (.524).
Among MVC players, Aguilera led the league in RBIs and finished tied for second in hits with Kaczmarski. ISU advanced to last weekend’s conference tournament title game.
Kaczmarski, a sophomore outfielder, was the leading hitter for the Aces (24-34) with a .339 batting average. He also paced Evansville in eight other offensive categories, including runs (48), stolen bases (15), doubles (15), home runs (six) and slugging percentage (.504).
During last week’s MVC tournament, Kaczmarski hit a three-run walkoff home run in Evansville’s 4-3 win against Bradley.
Title time: Prairie Ridge grad Allison Holly was part of a University of Mary-Hardin Baylor women’s golf team that won its first NCAA Division III national title last month in Destin, Fla.
The Crusaders won the championship by eight strokes for the second national title in UMHB women’s golf history. The school also won the 2000 NAIA championship.
A junior, Holly played in six tournaments this season, including the West Region Invitational. In 11 rounds, Holly posted an average score of 85.64. Her best round was a 79 in September at the UMHB Lady Cru Fall Invitational.
MAAC honoree: D-I Iona College freshman infielder Matt Byrne, a Cary-Grove grad, was named to the All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference second team in baseball last month.
Byrne, who was chosen as a designated hitter, batted .317 in conference games while starting 36 times this season for the Gaels (8-43). Byrne, who batted .258 overall, scored 18 runs while tying for the team lead with 16 walks and ranking second in stolen bases (eight).
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column and a blog about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at BarryOnCampus@hotmail.com, check out his On Campus blog at McHenryCountySports.com and follow him @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.