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2013 Women's Track & Field Preview
When asked about the upcoming 2013 women's track & field season, Liberty Head Coach Brant Tolsma described it as a "repeat of an old song." He fully expects the Lady Flames to battle Coastal Carolina for Big South Conference women's track & field supremacy once again this year.
Liberty has won three consecutive Big South women's indoor track & field team titles. Meanwhile, the Chanticleers have captured seven of the last nine outdoor conference crowns, developing quite a competitive rivalry in the process.
This year, Liberty will host the Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships at the newly refurbished Matthes-Hopkins Track Complex for the first time since 2007. The Lady Flames have won the conference title each of the previous six times they have hosted the event and will aim to keep that streak alive.
Another team goal will be capturing the Big South "Triple Crown" of cross country, indoor track & field and outdoor track & field championships for the first time since 2009-10. The Lady Flames' cross country team got things started with a Big South title in October.
Looking beyond the Big South Conference, the Lady Flames hope to continue their climb up the ECAC standings. In 2012, Liberty posted its best-ever finish (11th place) at the ECAC Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships and equaled its highest ECAC placement (seventh place) outdoors.
"Liberty University has demonstrated a great deal of support for our program," explained Tolsma. "We are well positioned to continue to move our program forward. That's our goal."
In order to achieve its objectives, Liberty will need to compensate for losses from last year's team. Seniors combined to score 95 of the Lady Flames' 214.5 points at the 2012 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships. As a result, "We'll be scrambling to fill in for the losses of All-American Melinda Bendik, Jennifer Klugh, Mia Aghaji, Olivia Charnuski, Alyssa Pegues and more," Tolsma noted.
The team does return four seniors who have combined for 11 Big South titles, including heptathlete Christina Mitchell (five titles), 800-meter runner Meghan Burggraf (three titles), pole vaulter Shelley Parker (two titles) and distance runner Khristina Kanagy (one title).
Sophomore Mychelle Cumings won three Big South throwing event championships last year and could be the Lady Flame with the best chance of qualifying for the NCAA national meet in 2013, according to Tolsma. Fellow thrower Jocelyn Williams is the defending ECAC weight throw champion.
Liberty will also be aided by what Tolsma calls "a solid recruiting class with a number of key newcomers."
An event-by-event look at the 2013 Lady Flames follows.
Last season, the Lady Flames set a new school record in the 4 x 100 relay, clocking a time of 45.90 seconds at the Liberty Collegiate Invitational. However, sophomore Abigail Flower is the only member of that quartet who returns this season.
Flower, a Lynchburg native, excelled as a freshman, posting third place Big South finishes in the indoor 200 and the outdoor 100 and 200. Her sophomore campaign is already off to a strong start, after Flower won the 60-meter dash with a personal-best 7.62 clocking at the Liberty Kickoff.
Sherri Spruel, a senior and team captain, is the veteran of a young sprint crew. She led off for the Lady Flames' Big South runner-up 4 x 100 relay team last year and opened her senior campaign with a personal-best 60 dash time of 7.78 at the Liberty Kickoff.
Freshman Corinn Bedell owns the Lady Flames' fastest 400-meter dash personal best, at 57.17. Behind her, the team should have solid depth and strong competition for places on the 4 x 400 relay.
Freshman Kelli Ley (57.31 personal best) and junior Kiara Bridges (57.32 personal best) have both run under 57.5 seconds for the one-lap event. Redshirt freshman Ansley Gebben (59.90 personal best in the 400 hurdles) and freshman Brittney Webley (62.15 personal best in the 400 hurdlers) are other relay possibilities. Meanwhile, senior Meghan Burggraf has clocked a 55.8 split in the 4 x 400 relay before.
Webley could be the Lady Flame best positioned to fill the shoes of the graduated Olivia Charnuski in the hurdles. Charnuski owns the program record in the 100 hurdles (13.65) and was a seven-time all-conference performer. Webley's top high school mark was 8.10 seconds in the 55 hurdles.
Liberty should be deep in the 100 hurdles behind Webley, with Gebben (14.66) redshirt senior Christina Mitchell (14.70), freshman Mary Echols (14.71), sophomore Audrey Bamford (14.85) and freshman Erika Jackson (14.88) all owning personal-best times below 15 seconds.
The 400 hurdles could be a strong event as well, with Gebben leading the way. The Liberty volleyball player clocked a time of 59.90 as a high school senior in 2011 which is faster than Danielle McNaney's school record of 60.57 seconds.
Webley (62.15 personal best), Mitchell (62.79) and Echols (44.54 in the 300 hurdles) will join Gebben in the 400 hurdles.
Senior Meghan Burggraf is the Lady Flames' headliner in the mid-distance events, with three Big South 800-meter titles and a 2:09.79 personal best to her credit. However, she may be redshirted in 2013. If so, redshirt junior Amanda Wimbush will be called upon as Liberty's top 800-meter runner.
Burggraf's understudy, Wimbush has clocked 2:15.57 for the 800 and placed fifth in the event at the 2012 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
The graduated Jennifer Klugh won the Big South indoor mile/outdoor 1,500 double as both a junior and senior. In her absence, sophomore Jacy Christiansen will step forward in those events. A year ago, Christiansen posted a mile time of 4:58.44 and came in fourth in the Big South mile final.
Sisters Katie and Courtney Russo are also expected to contribute in the mile and 1,500. Both are coming off of solid cross country seasons, highlighted by an 18th-place Big South finish for Courtney, a freshman.
Liberty enjoyed a dominating performance at the 2012 Big South Cross Country Championship, winning by 32 points. Individual conference champion Jennifer Klugh has exhausted her track & field eligibility, but the Lady Flames still boast a strong group of women's distance runners.
Senior team captain Khristina Kanagy, who placed seventh in the Big South cross country meet, anchors the group. In 2012, she won her first Big South individual championship in the indoor 5K and placed second in the outdoor 10K. Kanagy lowered her personal-best times to 17:27.13 in the 5K and 36:33.99 in the 10K last season and should be Liberty's leader in both events once again in 2013.
Sophomore Jacy Christiansen was one spot behind Kanagy at the Big South Cross Country Championship and will contribute in the 3K and 5K. As a freshman, she was the Big South indoor 3K runner-up and clocked a 17:46.29 in the indoor 5K.
Rounding out the Lady Flames' All-Big South cross country performers this fall was senior Betel Yosef, with a ninth-place showing at the conference meet. The steeplechase was her best event in 2012, as Yosef clocked a time of 11:01.58 and came in third in the Big South final.
Other runners who will look to convert cross country breakthroughs into corresponding track success are sophomore Meredith Mistretta and junior Jessica Gass. Mistretta will focus on the 5K and 10K, while the steeplechase is Gass' specialty event.
"Our shot at winning the Big South championship could come down to our ability to put up good performances in the jumps," observed Tolsma. Fortunately, the Lady Flames are deep in three of the four jumping events, despite the graduation of Mia Aghaji (15-time All-Big South) and Alyssa Pegues (five-time All-Big South).
Redshirt senior Christina Mitchell was the 2009 Big South indoor high jump champion and owns a personal best of 5-5.25. Fellow heptathletes Audrey Bamford (5-5.25 personal best), Riley Brandon (5-5) and Jessica Harrison (5-4) are also accomplished high jumpers, while junior Kristen Willeford has recorded numerous 5-5 clearances. During the outdoor season, Lady Flames women's basketball player Sadalia Ellis (5-7 personal best from high school) will join the team.
In the pole vault, senior Shelley Parker is a two-time Big South champion and has cleared 12-8.5. She is joined by the freshman quartet of Chandler Fraley (12-3 personal best), Grayson Mack (11-0), Kellie Glynn (10-6) and Erika Jackson (10-6).
Freshman Janae Jones brings an 18-10 long jump personal best into her collegiate career, topping the Lady Flames. Jones will be joined by sophomore Melissa Rohwer (18-8.5 personal best) and multi-event athletes Mitchell (18-0.25), Brittany Crittenden (17-9.5) and Bamford (17-4.5).
Liberty lacks depth in the triple jump, but Jones (39-8 personal best) and Rohwer (39-7.75) could form an impressive duo. Rohwer came in fifth in the Big South indoor triple jump final as a freshman.
Despite the graduation of All-American hammer thrower Melinda Bendik, Tolsma believes the Lady Flames could stake their claim as the Big South's best women's throwing crew in 2013. Liberty boasts the conference's top returnees in five of six throwing events, including defending Big South champion Mychelle Cumings in the indoor and outdoor shot put and outdoor discus, defending Big South titlist Christina Mitchell in the outdoor javelin and Jocelyn Williams in the indoor weight throw.
Cumings starred as a freshman, capturing Big South championships and setting school records in three events—indoor shot put (51-3), outdoor shot put (51-2.75) and outdoor discus (167-0). She was voted the Co-Big South Women's Freshman of the Year outdoors and threw the shot put and discus at the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet.
Williams' top event is the weight throw, where she won the ECAC title with a school-record heave of 62-6.5 last season. Meanwhile, Mitchell pushed the javelin school record to 146-1, won the Big South championship and qualified for the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet.
Barnes placed fifth at the Big South indoor meet in 2012 with a personal-best shot put mark of 42-9. Nicholson, who can throw all four outdoor implements, is strongest in the discus. She threw 150-3 to place sixth at the ECAC meet as a freshman. Babbitt, who threw the javelin 122-7 in high school in Connecticut, will back up Mitchell in that event.
Christina Mitchell, who has already been mentioned numerous times throughout this preview, is arguably at her best in the pentathlon and heptathlon. She won the 2011 ECAC heptathlon title and owns three Big South multi-event crowns (2011 pentathlon, 2011 and 2012 heptathlon).
This season, Mitchell will aim to break 5,000 points in the heptathlon for the first time and battle for a berth at the NCAA Division I national meet. She will also lead a young, promising multi event crew, which also features two sophomores (Audrey Bamford and Riley Brandon) and three freshmen (Brittany Crittenden, Jessica Harrison and Erika Jackson).
Tolsma's greatest challenge in the multi events this season could be determining which four athletes to enter in the Big South pentathlon and heptathlon finals.
Bamford placed third in the Big South pentathlon last year and has already posted a pentathlon score this season (3,367) that would have won the 2012 Big South title. Brandon was fourth in both the Big South pentathlon and heptathlon finals as a freshman.
High school teammates at South Walton High School in Florida, Crittenden and Harrison each possess big-meet experience from competing in various AAU and high school national championships. Meanwhile, Jackson was a versatile competitor at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, qualifying for the state meet in the 4 x 100 relay, 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles, triple jump and pole vault as a senior.