ORONO, Maine — Jesse Labreck has one more chance to qualify for the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
On Friday, the fifth-year senior from Oakland begins the most important competition of her career during the first day of the heptathlon at the ECAC Track and Field Championships in Princeton, N.J.
“It all basically comes down to this weekend,” Labreck said.
Since her arrival at the University of Maine in 2008, Labreck has sought a spot in the NCAAs. With one of the most storied careers in UMaine track and field history nearly complete, the former Messalonskee High School star is taking a no-nonsense approach in her attempt to qualify for the nationals.
“There’s a lot of pressure, because you’ve had one goal all through college and that’s to go to nationals and I have one meet left to do it,” Labreck said.
Labreck is ranked No. 25 nationally in the heptathlon, a competition that encompasses the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin and 800 meters. The score is calculated using a complicated formula.
Her season and career best of 5,345 points (a school record) was set April 17 at Holy Cross. She needs a better score to earn one of 24 NCAA berths.
“I’m trying not to let it get to my head yet,” Labreck said. “It might be a little different once I’m there.”
UMaine head coach Mark Lech said the goal is well within her reach.
“She’s got to score about 100 points more to make it to the NCAAs,” he said, explaining the heptathlon’s condensed format can be difficult.
“You only have three long jumps, three throws; you only get to run it [an event] once,” Lech said. “If you foul out in one of them, you get absolutely no points at all.”
Labreck has been a dominating force at UMaine. She holds numerous school records, including the triple jump (41 feet, 1/4 inch), high jump (5-8 1/2), 100-meter hurdles (13.45 seconds) and heptathlon (5,345 points) outdoors.
She is second only to Ukrainian Olympian Viktoriya Rybalko, now a Black Bears coach, in the long jump and Labreck also ran on UMaine’s record-setting 4×100, 4×200 and 4×400 relay squads.
Indoors, she owns school marks in the high jump (5-10), 55 hurdles (7.82), 60 hurdles (8.39) and the pentathlon (3,959), and is second in the long and triple jumps.
“She is, I’d say, probably one-quarter of a notch below Vika [Rybalko] when she was here competing,” Lech said, trying to point out Labreck’s place in UMaine track annals.
He explained what she would have meant to the team if she had competed in the open events rather than the heptathlon at last week’s America East championships, where UMaine finished sixth.
“We had 84 points,” Lech said. “If she was doing individual events, we probably would have gotten 40 more points, which would have put us in third place. That tells you, in a nutshell, right there.
At the league outdoor championships in 2010, Labreck dominated. She won four individual events and ran on a first-place relay, helping UMaine finish second. She received the Coaches’ Award and was named the Most Outstanding Field Performer.
Labreck is a 12-time event winner at the America East championships, including last weekend’s victory in the heptathlon. In spite of her lofty accomplishments on the track, Labreck has maintained the proper perspective.
“Her best attribute is that she is extremely humble and that her character defines who she is,” said Dave Cusano, a former UMaine football player and track assistant who recruited Labreck.
“She is one of the most polite, sweetest, hardworking individuals that you’ll ever be around and that’s what champions are made of,” added Cusano, who is now the head coach at Wheaton College.
That doesn’t mean Labreck isn’t a fierce competitor. Lech said even though she doesn’t flaunt her confidence or her talent, she is still able to use it.
“[Friederich] Nietzsche had a saying, ‘be careful in casting out your devil ’lest you cast out the best thing about you,’” Lech said, trying to frame the dynamic.
“It’s kind of a matter-of-fact thing with her,” he said. “She knows, ‘I’ve been given this gift, so take it for what it is and use it the best I can.’”
Labreck has been working to hit her stride as a heptathlete this spring, despite limited competition during the past year.
She sat out the 2012 outdoor season as a redshirt. Labreck then was stymied during the indoor season when she competed in only one meet as an “unattached” athlete.
She had hoped to be eligible to compete in the pentathlon for UMaine, since she had missed most of her freshman indoor season with mononucleosis. However, the required request for a medical redshirt was not processed at the time and the NCAA in December declined to grant her a waiver for another season of competition.
“I try not to look back at things like that,” she said, keeping her eyes on her NCAA goal.
Labreck admitted not realizing her potential until she began getting recruited as a high school junior. Some college coaches had specific plans to make her a hurdler, a pentathlete or heptathlete.
Cusano took a different approach.
“Dave told me it would not be him deciding what I’m going to do, we would have a discussion about what I was going to do, and that’s why I chose here, because I felt like I had more options,” she said.
Labreck has received guidance and support during her career from coaches, friends and family members. But there is only one person who can make or break a track and field athlete.
“That’s the thing about track, it’s got to be you,” she said. “If you don’t want it, if you’re not the one fighting for it, or if you’re fighting for it because someone else wants it for you, then you don’t get it. You have to set goals for yourself and actually put the work in to reach those goals.”
Although she is an accomplished jumper and hurdler, Labreck believed her best path to a possible NCAA berth was in the multi events.
She excels in the hurdles and the jumps and is a good sprinter. Events such as the shot put, javelin and the 800 are more challenging.
“Javelin, [I’m] very uncomfortable. Shot put, I’m just on the edge of starting to break through a little bit. I hate the 800,” she admitted.
“It’s hard to work on seven different things, every single day, for a year.”
One of the key dynamics in the multi is learning how much effort to put into a particular discipline. Labreck said too much work on one can hurt another.
Labreck, who recently finished up her degree in elementary education, hopes to postpone that career. First she will pursue track and field professionally.
After coming up short in two previous attempts to qualify for the nationals in the hurdles and the long jump — and failing to boost her score at the America East meet — reaching the NCAAs will come down to maximizing her potential at the ECACs.
Both Lech and Cusano are confident Labreck can finally achieve her NCAA goal.
“If she makes it to the NCAAs, that would be the cherry on top of the sundae,” Lech said.
“If I could bet on somebody, I’d be betting on Jesse Labreck, that’s for sure,” Cusano said.