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Better late than never for sprinter Cunliffe

EUGENE — Jasmine Todd made her Oregon debut two years ago at the Washington Preview indoor track and field meet in Seattle.

Then a redshirt freshman, Todd needed just two races to establish what has become a trend of first-place finishes and record-setting performances for the world-class sprinter and long jumper.

In the final of the 60 meters that day, Todd lined up against teammate Jenna Prandini, USC’s Tynia Gaither and high school senior Hannah Cunliffe, a Seattle-area sprinting sensation who had spurned the Ducks with her commitment to Oklahoma despite a recruiting visit to Oregon hosted by Todd.

“There was no way that I was going to let her beat me,” Todd said earlier this week as she watched a replay of the race during the monthly TrackTown Tuesday town hall at the Downtown Athletic Club.

As it turned out, no one beat Todd. She held off Prandini to win in 7.20 seconds, setting both the meet and Dempsey Indoor records.

Prandini was second in 7.24 and Cunliffe was third in 7.35.

Later, when asked what she remembered most about that race, Todd laughed and said it was that “Hannah did not come (to Oregon) first.”

Well, she’s here now, and if Cunliffe’s indoor season was any indication of what’s to come for the redshirt freshman outdoors, she was worth the wait.

Cunliffe and the rest of the 2016 Ducks will compete today at Hayward Field when Oregon hosts the Pepsi Invitational, a four-team scoring meet that will also include USC, Washington and Penn State.

It’ll mark the Ducks’ first home meet since sweeping the team titles during the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships last June.

Cunliffe will make her Hayward Field debut for the Ducks in the 4x100 relay, though her teammates have already gotten a glimpse of Cunliffe’s potential with her 14-point performance at the NCAA Indoor Championships last month, which helped the Oregon women win their sixth national championship in seven years.

Cunliffe finished second in the 60 meters and third in the 200. She tied English Gardner’s Oregon record by running the 60 in 7.12 seconds in both her prelim heat and the final to also match the sixth-fastest time in NCAA history.

She then ran the second-fastest 200 time in school history with a 22.85 in the finals.

“I definitely exceeded my goal and I was definitely happy about that,” Cunliffe said. “I think a lot of people were really not expecting me to do well. It was kind of a breakthrough and gives me a lot of confidence going into outdoors.”

The addition of Cunliffe, as well as transfer Deajah Stevens, should help the Ducks recover from the loss of Prandini, the 2015 Bowerman trophy winner who turned pro last summer with a year of eligibility remaining.

What Oregon can provide for Cunliffe is a sense of stability after her one chaotic season at Oklahoma.

Cunliffe, 20, was the Sooners’ lone representative at the 2015 NCAA Indoor meet, finishing 12th in the 60. She then competed in one meet outdoors before indicating to the coaching staff that she was planning to transfer.

“I said I’ll finish out the season, and my head coach agreed I should finish out the season,” Cunliffe said. “But my sprint coach said since I’m transferring, he didn’t want my negative energy around the team and I couldn’t compete anymore.”

Oklahoma coach Jim VanHootegem verified Cunliffe’s account, but didn’t elaborate, citing a policy preventing comment on former athletes and staff no longer at the school. The sprints coach, Kevin Tyler, also left Oklahoma after last season.

Without access to the track or weight room, Cunliffe spent the spring in Norman working out on her own.

“I trained and did the workouts I thought I should be doing,” she said. “I was going to a high school track and practicing there, just trying to stay in shape.”

Once she got her release from Oklahoma in June — and not without a fight and an appeal to the school president — Cunliffe mulled her options and re-established contact with Oregon.

“I knew where I wanted to go but I wasn’t sure if they were going to have (scholarship) money so I had other options in mind, but this was my No. 1 choice for sure,” Cunliffe said. “I’ve been running at Oregon since I was young. My first big track meet was Track City when I was 8. It was always my dream to go to Oregon. But I kind of let other people get to me instead of making my own decision.”

For Robert Johnson, finding a spot on his team for Cunliffe was a no-brainer.

The Oregon coach had recruited her hard when she was winning state titles for Federal Way High School and he also knew her large family well. Cunliffe is one of nine children, and her dad, Mike, is a well-respected coach for the Seattle Speed Track Club and a former Washington State long jumper.

“Any time we get new kids into the program, we welcome them with open arms and then the emphasis is for them to come in and learn the system and learn the program and learn what it is to be an Oregon Duck,” Johnson said “She has definitely embraced that mentality 100 percent.”

She’s also embraced being on a team deep in talent.

“It’s been exciting, but it also kind of puts you in your place,” Cunliffe said with a laugh. “I love having a lot of people push me and I have a lot of great teammates, a lot of big-name teammates who have run really good times. It definitely pushes me. It’s a competition always at practice.”

She’s been up for the challenge so far, but now comes her first outdoor season in two years.

She has already competed once this season, joining Todd, Stevens and Ariana Washington on the 4x100 relay three weeks ago at the Willie Williams Classic. That team ran 43.31 to tie the second-best time in Oregon history.

Her outdoor PRs from high school are 11.58 in the 100 and 23.44 in the 200 from her fourth-place finish at the World Junior Championships in 2013.

But as Cunliffe proved during the indoor season, she is capable of vast improvements. No one has seen it more than Todd — now Cunliffe’s roommate.

“She’s been amazing,” Todd said. “Just watching her grow from the beginning of the year until now, she’s changed tremendously. Seeing how strong and confident she’s becoming on the track is phenomenal.”