DES MOINES — There was no torch and it wasn’t a relay, but the way Shelby Houlihan raced past Jenny Simpson on Saturday at the USA Track and Field outdoor championships felt like a changing of the guard.
The two Iowa natives — Houlihan, 25, is a Sioux City East graduate and Simpson, 31, is from Webster City — put on a show at Drake Stadium in the women’s 1,500-meter run final.
Known for her strong finishes, Houlihan did just that over the final 50 meters and roared past Simpson and the rest of the field to win in 4 minutes, 5.48 seconds. Houlihan was in fourth place heading into the final 400 meters before burning up the blue oval with a final lap of 57.67.
Simpson was second both with 400 to go and at the end, finishing in 4:06.21. Kate Grace, Houlihan’s Nike/Bowerman Track Club teammate who led after the first 1,100 meters, was third in 4:07.04.
Other Nebraska and western Iowa athletes were part of the show at the home of the Drake Relays, which is hosting its third USATF national championship meet since 2010.
Kenzo Cotton advanced to Sunday’s 200-meter dash semifinals by finishing third in his first-round heat and eighth overall in 20.72.
“Today was pretty much just trying to get into that top three so that I could make it to the next round,” Cotton said. “I’m just focusing on my technique and my race plan.”
Cotton, the Arkansas graduate who set the Nebraska state record in the 100 and 200 while at Papillion-La Vista, was pleased with the last 100 meters but had to make an adjustment early in the race.
“On the curve I ran too close to the inside of my lane, so I had to come back toward the middle of the lane,” Cotton said. “I was trying to change my trajectory, so that messed me up a little bit and I had to catch up.”
Another Arkansas graduate, former Logan-Magnolia state champion Alex Gochenour, is in fifth place after the first day of the women’s heptathlon. Gochenour has 3,586 points, one point behind Riley Cooks and 30 behind second-place Lindsay Schwartz.
It could have been Gochenour in second place if not for a rare off-day in one of her best events, the high jump. She cleared her opening height — 5 feet, 3 inches — on her third attempt before missing all three attempts at 5-4¾, a height that would have given her 35 more points.
“I had great high jump warmups, probably the best I’ve had all year,” Gochenour said. “When it came to the (competition) it was one of those weird things where I couldn’t figure it out. I went out at a bar I shouldn’t have had.”
After that disappointment, Gochenour turned one of her tougher events into her best one of the day by winning the shot put with a career-best of 48-8.
“So I went into the shot knowing that I not only needed to throw my best, but I needed to PR,” Gochenour said. “Being able to leave that event behind and start focusing on my next event has been big this year. I’ve known that PR is coming.”
Former Omaha North standout Brianna McGhee didn’t advance to Saturday’s final of the 100 hurdles as she was sixth in her semifinal round heat in 13.17. The top four finishers in both heats moved on to the final. McGhee, who lives and trains in Los Angeles, said a bad start doomed her chances to advance and make a run at lowering her personal-best time of 12.88 posted in 2016.
“I really wanted to do better here,” McGhee said. “It was poor execution. I ran better yesterday (12.99), so I was really hoping to get two rounds today and get that (time) drop.
“It was my start, and when your start is off, it will throw everything else off. If you don’t have a strong start to carry that momentum, against a field at this level, there’s not much chance to catch up.”
Wichita State distance specialist Rebekah Topham finished 13th in the 3,000 steeplechase in 10:04.45. From the first 100 meters the former Griswold, Iowa, star was at the back of the pack, but that didn’t bother her as she had a plan from which she didn’t want to deviate.
“I was expecting them to take off pretty fast, but I just didn’t want to do that,” Topham said. “I would rather run even or negative splits, and if I would have gone out with them, I’m pretty sure I would have slowed down. I was just running my own race.”
Topham will take some time off before preparing for her junior cross country season. She has finished three years of school in Wichita but sat out the cross country and track and field seasons in 2018 as a redshirt.
She chose that path after failing to make the NCAA outdoor championships after her 2016 sophomore season.
“I wanted to get a chance to improve,” Topham said. “My coaches were fine with it and they went with it. It was important for me to just focus on training.”
Nebraska hurdler Antoine Lloyd qualified seventh in 13.72 for the 110 high hurdles semifinals, while NU long jump specialist Shylia Riley failed to make the finals and finished 16th with leap of 19 feet, 4¾ inches.