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Friday, September 22, 2023


Track & Field women to test skills in Taipei

Eleven track & field Cougars are going to Taipei to represent USA Team at the 29th Summer Universiade. | Peter Scamardo/The Cougar

Eleven women from the Cougar track & field team have earned the right to represent USA Team at the 29th World Universiade in Taipei, Taiwan this week.

For the women, this is confirmation that they are a team on the rise. Having improved from eighth to third in conference competition, the women now have a chance to showcase their individual skills on the world stage.

In winning medals for USA Team, the Cougars have a key opportunity to prepare themselves for the upcoming season as they look to end the women’s championship drought.

Head Coach Leroy Burrell earned seven Women’s Coach of the Year honors in the mid 2000’s. During that time frame the Cougars won nine Conference-USA championships. The women have since struggled to match that success.

They have not claimed a conference title since 2006 and have not produced an All-American in two years.

The arrival of last year’s large and talented freshman class could once again make the women contenders. Their impact of athletes like Samiyah Samuels, Sierra Smith, Justice Henderson and Birexus Hawkins was felt immediately. The women’s third place finish at the American Athletic Conference Indoor championships was their first podium finish in three years.

Now in their sophomore year, those same four women lead the group of 11 Cougars faced with the chance to follow in the steps of Olympians Dawn Burrell, Kym Carter and Carol Lewis by representing the United States in international competition.

Sprinting sophomores

Samuels leads the group of women as the only sophomore with international experience. Having competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials as a high school senior. But Smith, Henderson and Hawkins all competed at the highest level of Texas high school track & field.

Their talent was felt immediately in the American Athletic Conference.

Smith collected five medals between the two conference meets. Samuels, also an accomplished long jumper, won the outdoor long jump conference title. All three ran on the 4x100m relay team that took silver at the AAC Outdoor Conference Championships.

While Hawkins, a 400m specialist, has lived up to Burrell’s message of performing when it matters most — setting PR’s in the 200m sprints, 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles at both conference meets last year. Her 200m bronze medal at the Indoor conference meet showed that with some growth, she can be a special athlete for the Cougars.

Recent graduates

Sprinter Tori Williams and distance runner Selena Sierra graduated from the University three months ago, but thanks to the rules of the competition, Coach Burrell is permitted to name a certain number of recent graduates on the USA Team roster.

Williams and Sierra were the clear leaders in the sprints and distance events respectively the last two seasons. They have performed at their best when it matters most, highlighted by their respective conference championships.

Williams, a two time NCAA West Regional qualifier, is coming off a personal best season. Her senior year saw her win the AAC Indoor 200m championship with a PR 23.34s run. Williams may have missed out on the school 200m record, but she now has the chance to win a gold medal for her country.

Sierra has been the top runner for both the distance events and the cross country team for the last three seasons. Her status is solidified by the two school records she owns: the Indoor 3000m, which she has broken several times, and the outdoor 3000m steeplechase.

Her presence will help senior Jennifer Dunlap shape into her role as the top returning distance runner. She will be competing in the 1500m for USA team — a precursor to her upcoming cross country season.

Record setters

In addition to Sierra, three women who set school records this past season will also be attending the games in Taipei: senior jumper Tonye’cia Burks and junior throwers Taylor Scaife and Mikaila Martin.

In the course of one season, Burks turned herself into a world class jumper. After winning the AAC Indoor triple jump championship and breaking the school record with a 12.99m jump, Burks had an outdoor season where her marks were consistently in the national leaderboards.

Going into the outdoor conference meet, Burks had already broken the outdoor triple jump record three times, reaching a high of 13.23m.

At the same meet, Burks pulled a muscle in her leg and missed out on competing at the NCAA Championships. Getting to compete in Taipei is the tournament she can use to finally prove herself as one of the worlds best.

Scaife, just a sophomore at the time, burst onto the scene when she broke the indoor weight throw record. At 20.44m, her throw was almost two meters greater than the previous best. After earning a bronze medal at the conference meet, Scaife carried her success over to the weight throw for the outdoor season.

While she did not medal at the outdoor conference meet, Scaife had the second best hammer throw in school history at 59.10m. She came second only to her teammate Martin who earned the bronze medal with a 59.44m throw, the best in program history.

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