April 30, 2003 11:00 pm

By Pierre LaBossire

Observer Staff Writer

The Eastern Oregon track team, powerful in the distance and throw events, is heading to Ashland this weekend with a lofty goal — the first conference track championship for the school in 47 years.

Eastern not only hopes to win a team title at the Cascade Collegiate Conference Championships being held at Southern Oregon, the school is hoping to send a bevy of men and women competitors to NAIA and NCAA III nationals later this month.

"We're the favorites in the distance events. (But) we're a lot more balanced than we've ever been. We've got a great group of throwers," said coach Ben Welch.

Eastern last won a track conference title in 1956, according to Welch. He said a lot of the other teams at the conference meet don't have Eastern's depth, "but we have to have a very good meet."

Welch said he's hoping Eastern "can steal some points" in the sprint events to win as a team.

Eastern will compete for both the team title and individuals will be trying to set personal best times to qualify for nationals. Welch said that will be tough because the Ashland track is notoriously slow.

"There'll be a lot of tactical racing. The goal is to win it as a team," he said. "We're not expecting a lot of fast marks."

The backbone of the men's team is its distance runners.

Alex McGladrey and Sean Williams are favored in the 5,000-meter run. Williams is the third in the nation at the NAIA level in the 5,000 with a time of 14:36.6, while McGladrey is fourth with a best time of 14:37.9. Both of those times are automatic qualifiers for nationals. Welch said these two may head to the NCAA III nationals because that event doesn't require preliminary runs. Williams and McGladrey are in the top 11 in the nation at the NCAA III level with their times.

Shawn Trimble (of Elgin) is a favorite in the pole vault. Trimble has a vault of 15-11 this year, fourth in the nation and good enough to automatically qualify for NAIA nationals.

Trimble is only two inches away from second in the nation.

Eastern's Damien Johnson is a provisional NAIA national qualifier in three events. Johnson is a qualifier in the 400-meter hurdles, the 110-meter hurdles and the triple jump. He has the 21st best 400-meter hurdle time in the nation.

Ian Schroeder is a provisional qualifier in the 1,500-meter run. He has the 12th fastest time in the nation in this event at 3:57.37, with is about two seconds slower than the automatic qualifying time.

Dirk Bortz is a provisional qualifier in the discus with a throw of 154-1, good for 14th in the nation. Jerry Morris is a provisional qualifier in the hammer throw with an effort of 160-8, good for 13th in the nation. Eastern's Jorn Johnson also has a hammer throw of 157-4, good for 21st in the nation, and also a provisional qualifying effort.

Among the women, Eastern has three national provisional qualifiers. Carri Jones is 24th in the nation in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. If she shaves another seven seconds off her time, she is an automatic qualifier.

Lindsey Ulrich is 27th in the nation in the 5,000-meter run, while Jessyca Barker is 36th. Both are provisional qualifiers for nationals.

The NAIA nationals will be held in Olathe, Kan., while the NCAA III nationals will be held in St. Lawrence, N.Y. May 24-25.