From start to finish, Friday was arguably the best day of Liberty's 2019 outdoor track & field season, to date. By the time the dust settled at Hodges Stadium, four Flames had qualified from the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet to the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Austin, Texas.
Liberty's national qualifiers on the day included a pair of seniors who will return to the NCAA meet for the second year in a row (Alejandro Perlaza Zapata – men's 400 and Denzel Pratt – men's javelin) and two sophomores who will make their national meet debuts (Felix Kandie – men's steeplechase and Chelsea Igberaese – women's discus).
Add in Azaria Kirwa's men's 10K qualifier from Thursday night and the Flames have equaled their program record of five NCAA national qualifiers with one day of competition remaining in Jacksonville. Liberty previously sent five athletes to the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships in 2007 and 2018.
Perlaza Zapata punched his NCAA ticket by cruising to victory in his quarterfinal heat of the men's 400 in a season-best time of 45.19 seconds. The Olympian from Colombia won his fifth consecutive 400-meter race with the second fastest time of his career.
Perlaza Zapata placed second overall in the event and is tied for No. 9 on the NCAA men's 400 national list for 2019. He is also tied for No. 18 in the world this year.
After earning All-America honors with a sixth-place finish in the men's 400 at this year's NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships, Perlaza Zapata will now attempt to earn his first outdoor All-America nod. He will compete in the men's 400 national semifinals at 9 p.m. Eastern on June 5 in Austin.
Kandie put an exclamation point on the Flames' successful day during the night's final event, the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase. Competing in the event for just the third time in his career, Kandie placed fourth in his heat with a school-record 8:42.43 clocking. A new personal best by more than 12 seconds, the time held up as the eighth fastest effort among the event's three quarterfinal heats and moved the sophomore on to Austin.
Kandie took down the school record of 8:43.77 set by fellow Eldoret, Kenya native Evans Kigen during the 2008 NCAA national final. Kigen was also the most recent Liberty men's steeplechase competitor to qualify for the national meet prior to Friday, last doing so in 2010. Kandie will next race in the NCAA men's steeplechase national semifinals at 8:02 p.m. on June 5.
The Flames' first two national qualifications of the day happened simultaneously, albeit in much different fashion. Igberaese took the dramatic approach in the women's discus. Sitting in 20th place as she stepped into the circle for her third and final throw, the sophomore unleashed a 172-8 effort. That stood up for 11th place, punching her first ticket to Austin.
Igberaese was able to redeem herself after throwing just 142-5 at the same venue in the ASUN women's discus final two weeks earlier. She will become the second Lady Flame ever to throw the discus at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships, joining Mychelle Cumings, who also qualified as a sophomore in 2013. Igberaese's discus competition in Austin is slated for June 8 at 6:05 p.m. Eastern.
Conversely, Pratt threw well enough to qualify for Austin on his very first men's javelin attempt, which measured 221-5. The senior later improved to 224-6 in round three for good measure, placing fifth overall in the competition.
Pratt, who competed in his fourth straight NCAA Preliminary Round meet on Friday, makes it back-to-back visits to the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships. The Bahamian national record holder will throw the javelin in Austin on June 5 at 7:45 p.m. Eastern.
Senior Michael Todd's Cinderella run ended just 0.06 seconds and one place away from Austin in the men's 800. After entering this meet ranked No. 57 in the East Region, Todd placed 13th in Friday's quarterfinals in 1:49.93, inches behind final qualifier Leon Atkins of Buffalo (1:49.87).
Men's NCAA National Qualifiers Felix Kandie – Steeplechase – 8:42.43 Alejandro Perlaza Zapata – 400 – 45.19 Denzel Pratt – Javelin – 224-6
Women's NCAA National Qualifiers Chelsea Igberaese – Discus – 172-8
Men's Record Breakers School Record – Steeplechase – Felix Kandie – 8:42.43 Old Record: 8:43.77 by Evans Kigen at the 2008 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships
Updates to Liberty's All-Time Men's Top 10 List Steeplechase – No. 1 – Felix Kandie – 8:42.43
Up Next Liberty will get the meet's final day started with the men's shot put, Saturday at 2:45 p.m. Both Jose Ballivian and Kyle Mitchell are entered in the event.