Mar 2, 2010

Track sweeps the Big South Conference championship titles

by Daniel Martinez

Dozens of male and female athletes in Liberty colors broke out a proverbial broom this weekend in Clemson, S.C., as the Liberty University track and field team swept the Big South Conference championship titles.

The women won their first title since 2005 — breaking a four-year stranglehold by Coastal Carolina — and the men their record 13th consecutive title, expanding their conference record.

Led by redshirt junior Sam Chelanga and junior jumper Clarence Powell, the men defeated seven other Big South teams with a haul of 192 points, beating their closest competitor, Charleston-Southern, by 70.

Chelanga, the “class of the conference,” in the words of Coach Brant Tolsma — motored his way to three victories for Liberty, two of them on his shoulders alone.

Already the reigning champ in the men’s mile, he defeated High Point’s Josh Morgan in a close contest with a final time of 4 minutes 13.75 seconds. He then earned Liberty its 10th victory in 13 years in the 3K, leading the entire run en route to an 8:14.07.

But his personal favorite accomplishment was his joining with redshirt sophomore Will Reeves, redshirt junior Chris Herbst and freshman Paul Arslain in winning first place in the distance medley. Running the fourth and final medley leg — a distance of 1,600 meters — he followed up the legs of 1,200, 400 and 800 meters with a sterling 4:07.3, good for a victory over second place High Point.

“We lost (the distance medley) last year to VMI, and we wanted it back,” Chelanga said. “It was also good for some of the guys who’ve never won anything. I thought that was really good.”

“We wouldn’t have won it without Sam,” Tolsma said, adding: “Nobody really challenged him (the whole weekend).”

Chelanga is, at this point, the team’s only certainty for the Track & Field National Championships.

While Chelanga came up big for Liberty, the leading scorer for the weekend was Powell, who earned 28 of the championship points by triple-jumping over 49 feet and high jumping nearly seven feet, winning both events. He added to those performances (and he beat the triple jump competition by over two feet) with an IC4A qualifying long jump of 23 feet and 3.25 inches, good for second in the meet.

Another noteworthy effort was put forth by red-shirt junior Evans Kigen, who finished just six seconds behind Chelanga in the men’s 3K (8:20.78) good for third in the event and for All-Big South honors.

In addition, the men’s pole vault team put on a spectacular show, collectively earning 29 points by sweeping the 1-4 spots. Junior Kolby Shepherd finished first with a high of 15-feet-11 inches, and junior Spencer McCorkel, senior Justin Savini, and sophomore Cody Fridgen captured the other spots.

The key to the women’s success in the meet, according to Tolsma, was experience.

“Having senior leadership from our fifth year seniors was certainly helpful,” he said, noting that two redshirt seniors, Jaime Watson and Rebekah Ricksecker, won 44 points between them. The women’s team’s margin of victory over second-place Coastal was 37.5 points.

“Those two girls were a big factor,” he said.

Ricksecker, who also won the women’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year award, blazed the trail in the women’s mile. She finished first with a 5:05.79, and was followed by sophomore Jennifer Klugh (5:07.02) and junior Hailey Neal (5:08.30) in sweeping the top three spots in the event.

Ricksecker also put effort into the 800-meter dash, despite a fall that cost her a top-three finish. She finished in 2:18.84, good for fifth place.

Meanwhile, Watson captured the award for Women’s Outstanding Track Performer with a sensational performance.

“I had expectations of what I wanted to do,” she said later.

At 2:50 p.m., she bolted off the blocks of the 400-meter dash and crossed the finish line 54.59 seconds later, a school, conference, and conference championship meet record time.

“Coming into college, the 400 was my favorite event,” Watson said. “But the 800 has become my main event, so the 400 was a see-how-we-do run.”

Her “main event” 800-meter started at 3:40 p.m., giving her 50 minutes of rest in between.

“I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time; I prayed a lot to get through the race,” she said.

For the third straight year, Watson broke the tape before anyone else, winning the 800 with a time of 2:12.03, almost three seconds ahead of the second place finisher, and with the distinction of being just the second woman ever (behind Liberty assistant coach Heather Zealand) to win it three times in a row.

“It’s definitely huge for me to win that again,” Watson said.

She was followed in the 400 by senior Chenoa Freeman, who earned second place with a time of 56.43.

Coastal’s attempt for a fifth-straight title was further foiled by second-place finishes by junior Dacia Bushman (in the 5K) and sophomore Olivia Charnuski (in the 60-meter hurdles). Four Liberty women also cleared 11-and-a-half feet in the pole vault. Sophomore Alyssa Pegues and redshirt sophomore Mia Aghaji combined for 14 points with second-and-third-place efforts in the triple jump.

The triumphant athletes of Liberty’s track and field team now look forward to next weekend, where they will compete in Boston at the (women’s) East Coast Athletic Conference Championship and the (men’s) IC4A Championship. The week after that is the Track & Field Indoor National Championships.

But of the sweep-job for the Big South, Tolsma was proud. Of the newly-reclaimed women’s title, he said specifically: “I hope it doesn’t take us five years to win it again.”

Contact Daniel Martinez

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