“Just a few years ago, we were hosting this meet with three or four teams in conjunction with the Western Carolina meet,” said Milligan coach Chris Layne. “We were scoring it just to do it. Now this thing has blown up into a full two-day championship.”
Indeed, the rapid evolution of track programs around the AAC will make this weekend’s event — which will be held on Friday and Saturday in Black Mountain, North Carolina — a platform that could help Milligan qualify a few more athletes for the upcoming NAIA Outdoor Championships. Mitch Bronstetter, Romeo Gibbs, Zack Thayer and Kaitlyn Haas are just a few of the young Buffs who Layne believes might rise to the level of the competition around them and ride that wave into nationals.
“It used to be that you weren’t able to bank on the competition being deep enough to where these kids were going to be able to perform at a certain level,” Layne said. “Now I’m excited about some of these events. I think the level is going to be such that we could see some pretty good marks.”
To put the rise of the AAC meet into perspective, Layne said that 15 athletes competing this weekend have accounted for 27 national qualifying times. Four years ago, Layne said the entire conference was lucky to have five national qualifying marks.
Now the quality of the athletes in the AAC is starting to compare more favorably with the NCAA Division I athletes competing in the Southern Conference.
“After the weekend of April 2, seven of our conference leaders would be leading the SoCon,” Layne said. “Thirteen would be top-3, 17 would be top-5 and in 30 of the 40 events, our leaders would be top-10 in the SoCon. In the period of four or five years that’s how deep this conference has become.”
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Despite and up-and-down campaign that left the softball team with a 10-10 record in AAC play, Milligan coach Wes Holley is excited about his team’s prospects in the upcoming AAC tournament in Kingsport.
First of all, the Buffs have really started playing well over the past couple weeks and have generated some momentum in the process. Second of all, Milligan can draw inspiration from last spring when a late-season charge allowed them to advance to the AAC title game and earn a bid in the NAIA national tournament.
“We can beat anybody over there,” Holley said. “There’s a lot of parity among the teams this year. We’ve lost five conference games by one run.
“We certainly haven’t peaked too early, that’s for sure. They’ve actually been hitting the ball pretty well. We’re capable of being an explosive team if we get their mindset right when we get over there for the tournament. I think we’re going to be okay.”
The AAC tournament will open next Wednesday and run through Saturday.