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2014 Women's Track & Field Preview
The calendar recently flipped to the year 2014, but Liberty Women's Track & Field Head Coach Brant Tolsma fully expects the new year to feature some very familiar challenges and objectives.
"We continue to have great Big South battles with Coastal Carolina," Tolsma noted. "Last year, we won two of three (cross country and outdoor track & field) against them, but they're one up on us this year (cross country). It is a great rivalry, and that's the primary focus of our season."
Tolsma also hopes to see the Lady Flames improve upon their tie for ninth place at the ECAC Outdoor Track & Field Championships and continue to be represented at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
Last season, Mychelle Cumings threw the discus at the NCAA national meet, marking the second straight year that a Liberty women's thrower reached the national championship. Cumings is back for her junior season, which is one of the reasons Tolsma stated, "I feel like our team is potentially better than last year's team."
"We have a veteran throws crew and are returning the top sprinter in the conference," Tolsma explained. "Meghan Burggraf is coming back from a redshirt season, we're solid in the jumps and we have a lot of experience in the multis.
"Additionally, we have a good, solid freshman class this year. I would expect at least two or three of our top seven scorers this year to be freshmen."
Abigail Flower enjoyed a stellar sophomore campaign, setting school records in the indoor 200 (24.72) and outdoor 100 (11.57) and 200 (23.48). She also earned all-conference honors with third-place finishes in the Big South outdoor 100 and 200 dash finals.
"With two national competitors (Coastal Carolina's Erica Peake and Charleston Southern's Gabrielle Houston) graduated, Abbie is the Big South's top returning sprinter," Tolsma observed. "She will have a great challenge to come back from a horrific accident, but she has received great support from her teammates."
In the short sprints, Flower will be backed up by freshmen Oasis Hernandez, Shaneil Fairclough and Kelsee Derr, as well as much-improved sophomore Rajon Stinnett-Perry, who clocked a personal-best time of 8.07 to place fourth in the Liberty Kickoff 60 dash final.
Tolsma believes that sophomore Corinn Bedell is ready for a breakthrough this season after placing fifth in the Big South indoor 400 dash final as a freshman.
Bedell will also lead a deep group of candidates for the Lady Flames' 4 x 400 relay squad. Other top options include Flower, 800-meter standout Meghan Burggraf, 400-meter hurdlers Mary Echols, Ansley Gebben, Brittney Webley and Mary Witmer and jumper Janae Jones. With such a wealth of options available, Tolsma sees the school 4 x 400 relay record of 3:41.00 possibly being challenged in 2014.
Sophomore Brittney Webley will aim to break up Coastal Carolina's dominance in the 60 and 100-meter hurdles, coming off of a strong freshman campaign. The Empire State native broke the program freshman record with an 8.75 clocking in the 60 hurdles. She then recorded a time of 14.03 in the 100 hurdles and went on to place seventh in the ECAC final in the event.
Meanwhile, the 400 hurdles promises to be one of Liberty's strongest events and one of the best in the Big South Conference as a whole. Redshirt sophomore Gebben, who is now focusing exclusively on track after playing two seasons of volleyball, showed glimpses of her potential in 2013. She placed third in the Big South 400 hurdles final, tying the school record of 1:00.57 in the process. This year, Gebben will look to improve upon her high school personal best of 59.90.
Fellow sophomore Webley made the ECAC 400 hurdles final after racing to a personal best of 1:00.97 in the prelims. Mary Echols, also a sophomore, was one of three Liberty freshmen in the Big South final last season, where she placed eighth.
Gebben, Webley and Echols will all be pushed by talented freshman Witmer this season. As a senior at Ephrata High School in Pennsylvania, Witmer clocked a sterling 300 hurdles time of 42.11 and won the state championship in the event.
The Lady Flames will be greatly aided by the return of senior Meghan Burggraf from a redshirt season. She is a three-time Big South 800-meter champion and has placed as highly as fourth in the 800 at the ECAC level.
Junior Jacy Christiansen is the Lady Flames' top option in the 1,500 and mile races, boasting personal-best times of 4:37.62 and 4:58.44, respectively. Last season, she finished third in the Big South indoor mile final and fifth in the outdoor 1,500.
On the heels of a breakthough cross country season, Jacy Christiansen will also headline the Lady Flames' distance crew. She placed third at the 2013 Big South Women's Cross Country Championship and came in a career-best 57th at the NCAA Division I Southeast Regional Championship.
Last season, Christiansen captured her first Big South individual title, crossing the line first in the indoor 3K final. She then made a stirring late-race charge up to third place in the outdoor 5K final, helping Liberty clinch the team title. On the year, Christiansen improved her personal-best times to 9:48.91 in the 3K and 17:26.20 in the 5K.
Fellow junior and New Hampshire native Meredith Mistretta looks for a strong year on the track after recovering from a bout of mono which curtailed her 2013 cross country season. Last year, Mistretta was a Big South scorer in the indoor 5K and outdoor 10K. She also qualified for the ECAC 10K final with a personal-best 36:57.22 effort.
Sophomore Chelsea Page and freshmen Jessie Proehl and Kat Bouton will look to build upon their success from the 2013 cross country season. Proehl was the Lady Flames' No. 2 runner all year and earned all-conference honors with a ninth-place Big South finish.
Senior Jessica Gass placed 11th in the Big South steeplechase final last season, posting a personal-best time of 11:29.22. The Lady Flames will be seeking additional runners to join her in the event in 2014.
Kristen Willeford is back for her senior season after a breakthrough junior year. She captured the Big South indoor high jump title, tied for second place outdoors and lifted her collegiate-best mark to 5-5.75.
Women's basketball point guard Sadalia Ellis also shared second place in the Big South outdoor high jump at 5-4.25 and plans to jump during the outdoor season once again in 2014.
Tolsma believes that the Lady Flames will be greatly improved in the pole vault as a whole this season, despite the graduation of past Big South champion Shelley Parker.
Leading the way will be freshmen Brooke Shelton and Jessie Glynn and redshirt freshman Kellie Glynn. Shelton cleared 12-0.5 in high school, while Jessie Glynn went 11-5. Older sister Kellie Glynn, who has battled back problems, could also be a key contributor if healthy. Grayson Mack cleared 10-6 as a freshman last season and rounds out the Lady Flames' young pole vault crew.
Moving along to the horizontal jumps, Tolsma stated excitedly, "I really like our triple jump crew. This could be a really good event for us this year, as we'll have three Big South title contenders and good intrasquad competition."
The three title contenders Tolsma referenced include junior Melissa Rohwer (40-5.5 personal best), sophomore Janae Jones (40-4.25 personal best) and freshman Oasis Hernandez (40-7.75 personal best). Jones was the Big South indoor and outdoor triple jump runner-up in 2013, while Rohwer placed third indoors. Hernandez was a state triple jump champion in Kansas as both a junior and senior.
Liberty should fare well in the long jump as well, as Rohwer has jumped 19-0, Jones has gone 18-10 and Hernandez has sailed 18-9.25. Last year, the long jump played a key role in Liberty's Big South outdoor team championship, with Rohwer placing second and Jones third.
Junior heptathlete Audrey Bamford has long jumped 18-1, while freshman Erica Carney was a top-four placer at last year's New York state meet in both the triple jump and long jump.
Junior Mychelle Cumings is the cornerstone of the Lady Flames' formidable group of women's throwers. She made her debut at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships last season in the discus and is the only returning NCAA national qualifier on the team.
Also the reigning ECAC discus champion, Cumings won the Big South indoor and outdoor shot put and outdoor discus titles for the second straight season. Her Big South discus victory led a 1-2-3 Liberty sweep of the podium in the event.
Redshirt junior Jocelyn Williams, who placed second behind Cumings in the Big South discus final, returns after redshirting the 2012-13 indoor season. Williams' best event is the weight throw, as she won the 2012 ECAC championship in the event with a school-record toss of 62-6.5. This season, the New Jersey native could contend for a berth at the NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships before likely redshirting the outdoor campaign.
Junior Jennifer Nicholson is best at the discus, but could be a Big South scorer in all four throwing events this season. Last year, she placed third in the Big South discus final and fifth at the ECAC meet before throwing the discus at the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet for the first time. At the Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships, Nicholson also placed fifth in the javelin, 10th in the hammer and 13th in the shot put.
A senior, Rachel Barnes has become a shot put specialist and ranks second in program history behind Cumings both indoors (44-11.5) and outdoors (45-4.25). The outdoor mark ranked third in the Big South Conference in 2013, and Barnes will look for her first All-Big South honor(s) this season.
In the javelin, Liberty lost school record holder and two-time Big South champion Christina Mitchell to graduation. In her place, sophomore Yana Babbitt is expected to take over as the Lady Flames' top javelin competitor in 2013. She threw 123-11 before sustaining a season-ending elbow injury a year ago.
Sophomore Nicole Bishop was a pleasant surprise in the javelin last season, placing one spot ahead of Nicholson in the Big South final, in fourth place.
Christina Mitchell's graduation will also be felt in the multi events, as she captured the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Big South heptathlon titles. However, Liberty returns an experienced multi event crew of juniors Audrey Bamford and Riley Brandon and sophomores Brittany Crittenden, Jessica Harrison and Erika Jackson.
Bamford, Brandon and Jackson all gained ECAC experience last season, while Crittenden and Harrison competed at the national level during their high school careers.
The heptathlon went a long way toward Liberty's victory over Coastal Carolina at the 2013 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships, as the Lady Flames outscored the Chanticleers by a 23-1 margin. Brandon earned her first All-Big South honor in the process with a third-place finish, while Bamford has placed third in the Big South pentathlon each of the past two seasons.
Freshman Ashley Eubank, the 2013 VISAA state champion in the 300 hurdles and runner-up in the triple jump, is also training with the multi-event athletes this season.