Kevin Desmond, Jamie Ruginski and Sheldon Allen were strangers-about-to-become-teammates when they arrived at the University of Southern Maine late last summer. Different guys from different backgrounds on different paths.

They’re not so different today.

The middle distance runner, the jumper and the hurdler returned to USM from the NCAA Division III indoor track championships about 10 days ago. There wasn’t much of a commotion. The sport no longer commands the attention it got in simpler times, long before these three were born.

Scott Hutchinson, their coach, gave them the week off. Spring track begins Saturday with the Northeastern Invitational in Dedham, Mass. Bet you’ve got that marked in red on your calendar.

The men and women with the 13 best times and distances in each event qualified for the two-day national meet on the campus of North Central College in Naperville, Ill. That put this group of three from USM in rather elite company from the start.

So elite, Desmond hadn’t allowed himself at the start of the season to imagine being at the starting line, even for the preliminary races that cut the field.

“I was thinking if I worked hard enough, this could happen next year,” said Desmond, who had to adjust to the different jostling and jockeying of running on an indoor track as opposed to outdoors.

“I was ahead of schedule.”

He attended Monmouth Academy, one of about 230 students. Maybe a dozen boys were on the outdoor track team. It can be difficult to see yourself in the bigger picture when everything starts out so small.

Desmond finished eighth in the 800-meter run. The top eight in each event are All-Americans. His time of 2:01.97 was considerably slower than his qualifying time of 1:51.70, a USM record. The long indoor season had taken a toll.

Ruginski grew up in Buxton and graduated from Bonny Eagle, one of Maine’s biggest high schools that also sports a large and successful track program. He was a freshman at the University of Maine when he realized he needed a break. He went west to Lake Tahoe to snowboard and work.

He assumed someday he’d return to the long jump in track. He enrolled at USM this summer as a sophomore, played soccer and suffered a leg injury. That slowed his conditioning for the indoor track season.

In Illinois, he missed eighth place and All-American by fewer than three inches. Was he bummed? You bet.

“The best is yet to come,” said Ruginski, who was surprised by what he found in the jump boxes in the middle of Illinois: soft beach sand. When he looked up, he saw seating for spectators that ringed the second level of the field house.

All the competitors could feel they were the center of attention.

Allen was born in the Charlestown section of Boston, moved to the Caribbean island of Jamaica and returned to the United States when he was 13. He first attended Wheaton College, outside Boston. He transferred to USM. His home is in the Dorchester section of Boston.

At 6-foot-3, he is stride and power. He had the nation’s 11th-best qualifying time in the 60-meter hurdles at 8.20 seconds. He ran 8.29 in his preliminary heat. It wasn’t good enough to make the finals, which was won in 8.04 seconds.

That’s a twitch of a difference. A blink of an eye. An exhaled breath. He had to be perfect.

“You prepare and train all year, and two-tenths of a second separates you from first place,” said Allen.

Only five hurdles make up the 60-meter race. Each has to be cleared cleanly. How do you make yourself a twitch quicker?

“Repetition,” said Allen. And the disappointment that comes from being a blink too slow? “You learn from it.”

Three men, three stars without the egos that blind. Three students at a state college where non-traditional students are the norm. Where round-the-clock classes are juggled with jobs and practice and commutes.

Where a coach doesn’t always know which athletes will return for another season or another school year. Where you find satisfaction in expected and unexpected places.

 

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway