(Editor’s note: Montana State University press release)
INDIANAPOLIS, I.N. – Senior Diego Leon will represent Montana State University at the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships, as the NCAA announced the qualifiers for the national meet that runs from March 9-10 in College Station, Texas.
“The indoor championships are so hard to access because only 16 kids in each event across the nation can get in,” MSU head coach Dale Kennedy said. “It’s much more difficult to get in than the outdoor (championships). To have another athlete in there is a special thing and it puts Montana State on the national stage which is really great for our program.”
Leon qualified for the NCAA Championships by running a lifetime-best mark of 3 minutes, 57.37 seconds in the mile at the second MSU-hosted dual meet inside of Worthington Arena on Feb. 9. It was the second time that he’s ran a sub-four mile during his collegiate career.
“It’s pretty special to me,” Leon said of achieving his NCAA-qualifying time. “Especially this year because I had surgery during the summer and that took me out of a lot of cross country. Then I had a stress fracture on top of the surgery, so it just took me almost completely out of the fall. To be able to PR and get the converted 3:57 meant a lot to me because it proved to me that finally I’m more fit than I was before the surgery.
“It’s always a gamble with that, you never know if you’ll get back to that level or not. But, running that (mile) was a confirmation.”
The Hollister, Calif., native advanced to the NCAA meet with the 13th best time in the nation this season. He finished less than six-tenths of a second ahead of the first person outside the top 16 on the Division I performance list, while a total of 30 runners ran sub-four-minute miles during the course of the indoor slate. He is the 11th seeded runner in the event.
“It’s real exciting that he has an opportunity to go up against some of the best runners in the NCAA,” MSU assistant and distance coach Lyle Weese said. “Especially when you look back at his fall coming off a pretty major injury, he was really just getting going in his training. It’s exciting to think of what he can build to by the time we get to the outdoor season.”
Leon is the fourth Montana State mile runner to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships. He’s the third Bobcat since 2011 to advance to the national meet, with Jeff Mohl (heptathlon) participating in the 2013 meet and Cristian Soratos (mile) earning runner-up honors at the 2015 NCAA Championships.
“We’re kind of establishing a legacy and tradition of really great middle-distance running at MSU,” Kennedy said. “Certainly, we’re excited for Diego to have this opportunity to get in with the best of the country, because he is one of the best. He’s 13th on the descending order list which is a tremendous accomplishment. We’re really hoping that he has a great experience at the national championships.”
The MSU senior makes his first appearance at an NCAA meet with strong credentials. Leon owns the third fastest mile in program history, along with the sixth fastest 5,000-meter run (14:10.12) and eighth fastest 3,000 (8:07.93). He’s also a member of the Bobcats’ ninth-best distance medley relay, an event he’s earned all-conference accolades on two occasions.
“Being in the national meet, I look at it as a cool experience,” Leon said. “It’s more important to me that I’m PR’ing and growing. I wouldn’t be too devastated if I hadn’t made the meet, but I’ve never been to nationals. I’m just going to take advantage of this opportunity and enjoy the experience and run as well as I can.”
Leon will compete in the first preliminary race of the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships with the mile beginning at 4:35 p.m. MDT on Friday, March 9. If he finishes in the top eight, Leon will automatically earn First Team All-America status and have an opportunity to compete for an individual national championship with the finals scheduled to start at 3:10 p.m on Saturday, March 10.