Sports Track & Field

Becoming AAC champions just the first checkmark for UH track and field

Both the men's and women's UH track and field teams captured conference titles in dominating fashion Sunday at the 2021 AAC Championships. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Both the men’s and women’s UH track and field teams captured conference titles in dominating fashion Sunday at the 2021 AAC Championships. | Courtesy of UH athletics

For the UH track and field program winning isn’t just the goal, it’s the expectation.

Entering the 2021 American Athletic Conference Championships, the Cougars carried themselves with an extreme sense of swagger and confidence that few programs in the country exhibit — feeling as if they had already won the conference championship before a single event took place.

“This meet we weren’t really just trying to win,” UH track and field’s Brianne Bethel said of the program’s AAC title sweep. “We knew we were going to win.”

While overconfidence is often the downfall of many athletic teams, both collegiately and professionally, the Cougars had good reason to feel certain that no one would beat them given the sustained success the UH program has had under head coach Leroy Burrell. 

Entering the 2021 season, the UH track and field program’s numbers under the leadership of Burrell for the past 22 years have simply been insane: 41 combined conference titles between the UH men’s and women’s teams and more than 155 NCAA All-Americans produced, some of whom went on to be Olympians and others who will compete in Toyoko in a matter of months in the upcoming Summer Olympics.

The secret to UH’s success is the way the coaching staff gets each student-athlete in the program to buy-in day in, day out.

“There’s just so much more investment (from the student-athletes) now,” Burrell said. “A lot of the nonsense that you might encounter with athletes or with a team, a lot of that’s fallen to the wayside because there’s no time to waste. That has made my life as a coach a lot easier, but it’s also raised the expectations as well.”

While the UH coaches ask a lot from the team, each athlete knows that precisely doing everything they are told, no matter how difficult or painful it might be, is worth it to instill a winner’s mentality.

“I feel like (the coaches) train us and build us to never lose,” Bethel said. “They make us tough mentally and physically. The workouts we do (everyday) prepared us.”

Shaun Maswanganyi, whose emergence as a phenom in the sport during his freshman year was one of the biggest storylines for UH this season, expressed this same appreciation for his coaches as Bethel did.

While Maswanganyi is gifted with natural athleticism, he understands his level of success would be nowhere near the level it currently is without his coaches.

“The most important process for me was trusting my coaches and my teammates,” Maswanganyi said.  “… I owe most of my success to my coaches and my teammates because they pushed me a lot. They were there for me. At some meets I didn’t perform the way I wanted to but they were always there to motivate me.”

With the athletes fully bought in and the guidance of a successful coaching staff with vast amounts of experience, the 2021 AAC Championships went exactly as UH expected — sheer and utter domination by the Cougars as the men’s team won its fifth straight conference title and the women’s team captured its second AAC championship since 2018.

Bethel smoked the competition in the 200-meter and 400-meter dash, putting up record times that earned her a spot in the Olympic Trials qualifiers in her home country of Barbados.

Maswanganyi shattered the meet record in the 100 and 200-meter dash, posting times of 9.87 and 19.93 seconds on his way to being named the 2021 AAC Freshman of the Year.

Maswanganyi’s times in the 100 and 200 are the second-fastest times in the NCAA this season in each event.

UH athletes occupied all three spots on the podium in numerous other events and both the men’s and women’s relay teams etched their names into the history books, setting new records on their way to victory.

“We did what we had to do to win,” Bethel said. “Everyone just came together and I’m so proud of everyone for coming together and doing what they had to do.”

The Cougars are extremely proud of their accomplishments this year, but understand that winning the conference championships is just the first checkmark for the program.

The Cougars now set their eyes upon the 2021 NCAA West Region prelims, which will take place May 27-29 at Texas A&M, as they look to have as many athletes as possible qualify for the 2021 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships where the program will look to tick off its last and most important checkmark: cementing UH as the country’s best collegiate track and field program.

“They call us speed city for a reason,” Maswanganyi said. “… We’re trying to make sure that we let it be known that we are the best university at sprints. That’s our brand, that’s our culture. We want to live it. Every moment we enjoy it because winning is our culture.”

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