Title hopes for men, women in Birmingham
Eight meets have come and gone for the Cougar track & field team, and in that span, the Cougars won numerous events, rose and fell in the NCAA charts and set five new school records.
All they have left to do is perform their best when they travel to Birmingham, Alabama for the American Athletic Conference Indoor Track & Field Championships.
The Cougars enter the meet with 11 athletes, eight men and three women, on top of their respective events on the Conference charts. They have 33 total athletes ranked in the top 5 of 20 events.
“We have to go and perform at our best,” said head coach Leroy Burrell. “They all know what we’re trying to do, what our objective is. We’ve talked about it all year. Now’s the time to step up to the occasion.”
Sprinting for gold
As has been the case all season long, the sprinting units have the most athletes with the top marks, seven for the men and four for the women.
Seniors Cameron Burrell and Tori Williams lead the way for the men and women, respectively. Burrell ranks No. 1 in the 60m and No. 2 in the 200m, while Williams ranks No. 1 in the 200m and No. 3 in the 60m.
Both are coming off top 5 finishes at the Tyson Invitational, where they set season bests to earn those top place designations.
Also at the Tyson Invitational, both the men and women 4x400m relay teams set the top conference times. The men ran 3:09.95, finishing sixth, while the women ran 3:38.54, finishing fourth.
In total, six top marks were set in the Cougars’ final weekend of competition.; sophomore hurdler Amere Lattin and senior thrower Cameron Cornelius were among them.
Lattin set the third fastest time in school history, 7.74s, with his third place finish in the 60m hurdles and Cornelius threw 18.16m in his shot put victory.
“Conference, we should win that,” Lattin said. “Conference is the least of our worries right now. We’re going for a bigger picture, and that’s the indoor and outdoor national title. We have nothing but unbelievable talent. We have the tools to get it done.”
The men have bought into the message from assistant coach Carl Lewis that they are talented enough to compete for a national title. While there is a strong likelihood that they will indeed compete for a title, they need to get more athletes qualified should they hope to win one.
Men like Cornelius and freshman multi-event competitor Nathaniel Mechler sit outside the NCAA Top 24, the mark to qualify, and this weekend presents their final opportunity to improve their marks.
Freshmen ‘leading the way’
The women have championship expectations of their own with a chance to win their first conference title since 2006.
They have been energized by the presence of a freshman class with talent across numerous events. While Williams, senior distance runner Selena Sierra, No. 6 in the 5000m, and junior jumper Tonye’cia Burks, No. 3 in the high jump, have kept their competitive form, the number of new athletes has the women believing they can claim a conference title for themselves.
“I think it set the standard really high,” assistant coach Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie said. “Normally you have freshman coming in who need to be nurtured and mentored. The freshmen coming in have taken the rope and are leading the way.”
Sprinters Sierra Smith and Samiyah Samuels have been highlights of the new faces.
Smith holds the second best conference times among the Cougar sprinters: No. 5 in the 60m, 7.49s, and No. 4 in the 200m, 24.23s. Samuels, in addition to ranking in the top 10 for the 60m, holds the top conference mark for the long jump, 6.08m.
The most surprising performer for the women has been sophomore thrower Taylor Scaife. After placing ninth at last year’s AAC Indoor Championships with a personal best of 18.56m, Scaife astronomically improved in year two.
Each meet, she slowly improved her mark until she took the school record with a 20.44m throw at the Charlie Thomas Invitational, No. 2 in the conference behind Annette Echikunwoke of Cincinnati.
Cincinnati looks to be the major threat to the women’s title hopes. Apart from the fact the women only have 26 athletes going when normally they have 32, the Bearcats hold the top marks in five events.
“I really want to see the women have that opportunity,” Burrell said. “We have the personnel. We have the talent. But we also have to go there and get it done when it matters most. I’m really confident that many of our women will show up and be just that when we really need them. But at the same time, we’re not necessarily in the driver’s seat. I would be a little more confident if we had a few more bullets to shoot.”