After specializing in the 300-meter low hurdles in high school, Conner Stapleton is dedicating his sweat to adding two hurdles and 100 meters of track to his comfort zone.
Easy it isn’t.
He is a freshman for the University of Notre Dame’s men’s track and field program and competes in the 400-meter hurdles.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to figure out how to run the race,” Stapleton said with a laugh.
“Your freshman year of college is such a big transition. I have to perform a little better when it comes to athletics, but it will all come around. I’m sure everyone deals with that. Part of sports is you have to keep your head and trying to stay mentally strong.”
As a Center Grove senior, Stapleton won the 300 lows at the 2013 IHSAA Boys Track and Field State Finals in a career-best time of 37.26 seconds. He later anchored the Trojans’ second-place effort in the 1,600-meter relay.
These events, according to Notre Dame associate head coach Alan Turner, are the ideal hybrid of the 400 hurdles run at the collegiate level.
Turner is confident in Stapleton’s ability to adjust and, in time, excel.
“Conner is doing well, but he’s not quite at the level he wants to be at. I think he gets a little discouraged because he’s not winning all the time like he did in high school,” said Turner, a former three-time All-American at Indiana University who specialized in the long jump and 400-meter dash.
“I just keep telling him to keep plugging away and that he’ll get there. I keep stressing with Conner that he’s doing OK.”
Admittedly his own worst critic, Stapleton on Saturday placed second in his heat at the Stanford Invitational in a time of 53.74 seconds. This follows up the 53.64 he posted the previous week at the Victor Lopez Classic hosted by Rice University in Houston.
At the Stanford event, Notre Dame teammate Jarrod Buchanon, a senior, won his heat in 52.14 seconds.
The latter time is where Stapleton would like to be by the end of the outdoor season.
“The 400 hurdles is the one event that gives a lot of college coaches some trouble,” Turner said, noting that incoming athletes often have sprint or distance hurdling experience but rarely that combination.
“With Conner the speed is there, so I know he has the ability. He can definitely be in the 52s. He just needs more races under his belt.”
Stapleton seeks improvement this weekend at the annual Border Battle hosted by the University of Louisville.
Among other potential competitions for Stapleton are the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships at the University of North Carolina (April 17-19), the Drake Relays (April 24-25) and the Georgia Tech Invitational (May 16-17).
Stapleton’s goal is to qualify for the NCAA Preliminaries in Jacksonville, Fla., from May 29-31. He knows he’ll have to lower his times into the low-52s to have a chance.
Part of Stapleton transitioning into a 400 hurdles competitor is that the event isn’t included during the indoor track and field season. Therefore, he competed as a sprinter for Notre Dame, primarily running the 200- and 400-meter dashes.
Training daily alongside the likes of 400-meter dash specialists Pat Feeney and Chris Giesting, it stands to reason the freshman will continue his current progress in the 400 hurdles.
“You get humbled real fast. I get humbled every day in practice. Every day is a hard training day when you’re with two All-Americans. The first few days were kind of nerve-wracking because you’re like, ‘Man, I hope I don’t die out here in practice,’” Stapleton said.
“Right now I’m just trying to improve and hang in there with them.”