North Allegheny grad Ayden Owens lands at Arkansas with record-setting splash

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Saturday, February 19, 2022 | 11:01 AM


Ayden Owens felt the sunshine of Southern California and the cold of Ann Arbor, Mich., in his first three years of college. Nowadays, you’ll find the former North Allegheny star breaking track and field records down south in Fayetteville, Ark.

He knows that may surprise some.

“I’ve taken a crazy journey,” Owens said, “but I’m finally in a place that I feel good, and I’m excelling.”

Now a graduate student at Arkansas with sophomore eligibility, Owens broke the school’s heptathlon record with a personal best in his first attempt with his new team, scoring 6,272 points last month at the indoor Razorback Invitational. His score also earned him the Puerto Rican national record and ranks as the second-best mark in NCAA history.

“I felt like it was a long time coming,” Owens said. “I felt like I was capable of putting up big marks like this for a good couple of years but was just waiting for that maturity — physical and mental maturity — to really put it out there. It’s really opening the door to bigger point totals in the future.”

The seven events in the heptathlon are runs of 60- and 1,000-meters, the long jump, high jump, shot put, pole vault and 60-meter hurdles. His previous best was 5,995, but Owens’ expectations are way higher.

“To be honest with you,” he said, “on my goals sheet on my wall, I had: ‘Scored 6,300 points in my season opener.’ ”

After graduating from North Allegheny with a collection of WPIAL and PIAA gold, Owens spent the 2019 track season at Southern Cal, where he was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. He then transferred to Michigan but saw the 2020 season canceled during the pandemic.

At Michigan last spring, Owens was named the Big 10 Field Athlete of the Year. He finished third in the heptathlon at the NCAA indoor championship and second in the decathlon in outdoor season.

However, Michigan’s coach left last summer for LSU, so Owens started looking elsewhere. He finished his undergraduate degree in three years with the help of summer classes, so Owens enrolled at Arkansas in August to pursue a master’s degree in entrepreneurship.

Owens considered following coach Jerry Clayton to LSU but was lured to Arkansas instead.

“I was torn. It was about 50-50,” said Owens, who visited both SEC schools. “I didn’t know what to do. Was I rolling the dice and going with a new coach or sticking with the old one? Ultimately, coach (Travis) Geopfert came back to Arkansas and he kind of won me over.”

Geopfert, previously an assistant at Tennessee, tried to recruit Owens there two years earlier. Geopfert’s coaching resume includes several Olympians, an achievement Owens intends to someday add to his.

“He was one of the coaches I knew I wanted to check out,” Owens said. “His resume speaks for itself with the athletes he’s coached in the past. He was a big reason, but it’s also the whole staff. Our strength coach is a former decathlete. Our sport administrator, Terry Prentice, is a former decathlete. It’s like everyone around here isn’t just into track but they’re into the decathlon, the event that I do.

“The commitment to track and field was unparalleled compared to Michigan, USC or any other school that I’d seen or visited. I guess that’s why they’re the best program in the history of the NCAA.”

Arkansas has won 11 NCAA men’s team championships in the past 30 years including eight in a row from 1992-99. The Razorbacks were NCAA runners-up in 2015 and ’16.

After moving across the country and back, Owens sees Arkansas as a place to put down roots for a couple of years while finishing his grad degree and chasing an NCAA title.

He’ll try for a heptathlon title at the indoor championships before switching to the decathlon for outdoors.

“I couldn’t feel more comfortable here,” Owens said. “It’s the culture of the program. There are 10 or 15 pros who train here, so I’m around people who I didn’t get exposure to at my previous schools — around Olympians, around Ryan Crouser, the (shot put) world record holder, around dudes who do it at a level where I’m trying to go.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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