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Taking the Next Step: 2010 Track Outlook

January 20, 2010  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Jaime Watson has already won five Big South 800-meter titles, entering her final season of competition.

Jaime Watson has already won five Big South 800-meter titles, entering her final season of competition.

Liberty's 2010 track & field season will resume this weekend, when the Flames travel to Blacksburg, Va., for the Hokie Invitational. The two-day meet will commence Friday at 4 p.m., with the women's 3K. Live results will be available, courtesy of Flash Results, by clicking here.

The following 2010 Liberty track & field season preview first appeared in the third edition of Flames Illustrated for the 2009-10 basketball season.

By any standard of comparison, the men's and women's track & field teams are regularly among the most successful of Liberty's athletics programs. For example, the Liberty men's and women's indoor and outdoor track & field squads have combined to win 44 of the 56 Big South Conference titles ever awarded.

However, 24th-year head coach Brant Tolsma is not yet satisfied. "The 2010 season promises to be another year of progress for the Flames and Lady Flames," he stated.

What would such progress consist of? Tolsma answered, "Our men's team is trying for its fourth straight Big South triple crown (cross country, indoor track and outdoor track conference titles). We're also looking to get back on top at the IC4A meet, after finishing second last year. Finally, we are aiming for our best-ever team finish at the NCAA national meet, with the possibility of ending up in the top 10."

Leading the charge for the men's team is six-time All-American and newly crowned NCAA national cross country champion, Sam Chelanga. The redshirt junior set the NCAA all-time 10K record and earned a pair of All-America certificates during his first year of Liberty track & field in 2009. Now, he hopes to become the Flames' first-ever national champion in men's track & field.

Chelanga's classmate Evans Kigen will also return to action in 2010, after a redshirt season. He looks to build upon a stellar cross country season, which saw him become an All-American after a 20th-place showing at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship.

Chelanga and Kigen are joined by five other past Big South event champions on the Flames' roster. The list includes sophomore Ryan Bell (javelin), redshirt sophomore Anthony Bryant (high jump, triple jump and long jump), junior Clarence Powell (triple jump), junior Kolby Shepherd (pole vault) and redshirt junior Geren Woodbridge (heptathlon). The seven athletes have combined to claim 15 conference titles.

Meanwhile, the Lady Flames have not stood atop the Big South awards podium since claiming the conference outdoor title at home in 2007, a trend Tolsma is hoping to change.

"With some great senior leadership, we are looking to be much improved on the women's side, after a couple of down years," explained Tolsma, a 28-time Big South Coach of the Year in track & field. "We are looking to contend for the Big South championship, and have the potential to do so. We are also aiming for our highest finish at the ECAC Championship."

The aforementioned senior leadership will be provided by the quartet of Chenoa Freeman, Ashley Osborne, Rebekah Ricksecker and Jaime Watson, all of whom have an outside shot at qualifying for the NCAA national meet, according to Tolsma.

Watson, a five-time Big South champion in the 800-meter run, headlines a list of six Lady Flames who are past conference champions. Liberty's returning Big South titlists also include redshirt sophomore Mia Aghaji (high jump), sophomore Christina Mitchell (high jump), junior Krystle Matthews (pentathlon), Osborne (3K and 5K) and Ricksecker (1,500). The group has earned a total of 13 Big South event championships.

The Flames and Lady Flames opened the 2009-10 indoor track & field campaign at the Tolsma Indoor Track Center on Dec. 2-3, when they hosted the Liberty Kickoff. The indoor season will culminate with a trio of championship events in Februrary and March, beginning with the Big South Indoor Track & Field Championships at Clemson, S.C., Feb. 27-28. Liberty will then travel to Boston, Mass., the following weekend (March 6-7), for the IC4A and ECAC Indoor Track & Field Championships. This year's NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships are set for Fayetteville, Ark., March 12-13.

That same weekend, other Liberty competitors will commence the outdoor track & field season with the first of two consecutive meets in Conway, S.C., the Coastal Carolina Invitational. The Flames' featured outdoor meets include the Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships, to be hosted by Charleston Southern in Charleston S.C., April 15-17. The IC4A and ECAC Outdoor Track & Field Championships return to Princeton, N.J., May 14-16. Greensboro, N.C., will play host to the NCAA Division I East Region Outdoor Track & Field Championships, to be contested May 27-29. The meet will determine the competitors for the 2010 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships, slated for June 9-12 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

Men's Team Outlook
After graduating all-conference performers Phil Leineweber and Matt Parker from last year's team, the Flames will be young in the sprint and hurdle events in 2010. Anchoring the group will be junior Jacey Bailey. The Florida native ranks No. 2 in program history for the 60-meter dash, with a personal-best time of 6.85 seconds. Freshman Roderick Spruel appears to be Bailey's most promising understudy. He was the state runner-up in both the 55 and 100-meter dash events as a senior at Chancellor High School in Fredericksburg, Va.

Redshirt sophomore Chris Best, also a Commonwealth native, is the Flames' only 400-meter dash specialist. He is also the only returning member of Liberty's 4 x 400 quartet which captured the Big South indoor title last season.

Redshirt junior Chris Herbst is the most experienced member of a young hurdle crew Tolsma describes as "pretty promising." Herbst will compete for Liberty for the first time in 2010, after the transfer from SUNY Farmingdale redshirted last season. He owns personal bests of 8.35 for the 60-meter hurdles and 14.87 in the 110-meter hurdles.

Freshman Andre Washington owns the fastest personal best of the Flames' freshman hurdlers, a 38.07 he clocked as a senior at Woodbridge High School for the 300-meter hurdles.

Sophomore Isaac Wendland placed fifth outdoors and sixth indoors in the Big South Championship 800-meter finals as a freshman. However, he is battling injury and may redshirt this season.

Redshirt junior Sam Chelanga, best known for his exploits at the longer races, won the Big South indoor mile and outdoor 1,500-meter titles a season ago. Other strong options at the 1,500 and mile include redshirt sophomore Will Reeves, who was a Big South 1,500-meter finalist in 2009, and sophomore David Ricksecker, coming off an All-Big South showing in cross country.

The distance events figure to be Liberty's strongest disciplines, led by All-Americans Chelanga and Evans Kigen. Chelanga is the NCAA all-time record holder for the outdoor 10K (27:28.48) and ranks No. 2 on the all-time collegiate list for the indoor 5K (13:19.79). The Nairobi, Kenya native will be a NCAA national championship contender, both indoors and out.

Kigen displayed impressive range during his first season at Liberty in 2008. He won the Big South 5K championship and claimed the Penn Relays 10K title. However, his greatest accomplishments came in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Kigen set the Liberty and Big South records with an 8:43.77 clocking, when he finished 10th at the 2008 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championship.

Senior Josh Edmonds headlines an impressive supporting cast of distance runners, which also includes sub-32:00 10K runners Mark Hopely and Jake Reed, as well as steeplechase specialist Kyle Powers. Edmonds was the Big South 10K runner-up in both 2008 and 2009 and finished in the top six in the IC4A 10K both seasons.

Despite the graduation of Parker, who high jumped at the 2009 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships, the jumping events figure to be a team strength for the Flames in 2010. The duo of redshirt sophomore Anthony Bryant and junior Clarence Powell highlights the long jump, triple jump and high jump.

Bryant was tabbed the Men's Field Performer of the Year at the 2009 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships, after sweeping the long jump, triple jump and high jump crowns at the meet. He owns impressive personal bests of 23-5.5 in the long jump, 52-0 in the triple jump and 7-1.5 in the high jump.

In 2008, Powell was recognized as Big South Men's Freshman of the year for both indoor and outdoor track & field. He claimed the triple jump crown at both meets, narrowly missing qualifying for the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships as a freshman. His personal bests feature a 7-0.25 high jump and a 51-9 triple jump.

The pole vault, traditionally a strong event for Liberty, has seen a revitalization in recent years, led by junior Kolby Shepherd. The Georgia native has already captured a trio of Big South pole vault crowns (2008 indoor, 2008 outdor, 2009 indoor) and owns a personal best of 16-6.75.

Joining the mix this year is junior Spencer McCorkel, a transfer from Arkansas. A 17-9 vaulter in high school, he may take a redshirt this season. Sophomore Cody Fridgen, who also plays football for the Flames, placed third in the Big South outdoor pole vault a year ago and has cleared 15-3. Decathlete Geren Woodbridge owns a personal best of 15-5 and senior Justin Savini has reached 15-3, giving Liberty plenty of depth in the vault.

The javelin looks to be the Flames' best throwing event in 2010. Leading the way is sophomore Ryan Bell, who won the Big South title with a school-record 217-10 heave a season ago. Redshirt junior Elliot Galeone has also reached 206-7 and placed fifth at the 2009 IC4A meet.

Galeone headlines the Flames' discus throwers, after placing second in the event at the 2009 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships and qualifying for the IC4A meet.

Ryan Smith, a redshirt freshman, is Liberty's top shot putter. During his redshirt year in 2009, Smith reached 55-10.5, a distance which would make him the No. 3 performer in program history.

The indoor weight throw and outdoor hammer throw will be Liberty's weakest throwing disciplines. Smith provides the team's best shot at scoring Big South points in the events.

Multi Events
After the graduation of NCAA national qualifier Daniel Newell, Woodbridge will attempt to continue Liberty's rich tradition in the multi events. The Keystone State native won the 2009 Big South heptathlon indoors, before taking runner-up honors to Newell in the outdoor Big South and IC4A decathlons. He owns a personal-best score of 6,968.

Sophomore Drew Edwards finished eighth in the Big South decathlon a year ago, while Jacob DeValve scored 6,252 points in the decathlon as a senior at Manchester High School in Connecticut.

Women's Team Outlook
Sophomore Alyssa Pegues, who clocked 7.73 for 60 meters and 11.97 for 100 meters in 2009, will attempt to fill the shoes left by graduated senior Andrea Beckles in the short sprints.

Senior Chenoa Freeman and redshirt senior Jaime Watson provide a formidable 1-2 punch in the 400. Freeman, the 2009 Big South outdoor runner-up in the event, ranks No. 2 in program history with a 54.79 personal best. Meanwhile, Watson has clocked the second-fastest indoor 400 at Liberty, 56.01.

Hurdling figures to be an area of depth for the Lady Flames. Four Liberty runners made the 100-meter hurdles final at the 2009 Big South Championship, and three of them return in 2010. The team leader is sophomore Olivia Charnuski, who earned All-Big South honors with her third-place finish in the event. Juniors Rachel Houseknecht and Krystle Matthews also made last year's final.

All of Liberty's 100-meter hurdlers are also expected to compete in the 400-meter hurdles, where they will be joined by junior multi-event specialist Jennifer Healey.

Watson and fellow redshirt senior Rebekah Ricksecker both boast multiple Big South titles in the mid-distance events. Watson, who has run 2:08.29, is a five-time conference champion in the 800. Meanwhile, Ricksecker, with a 4:25.47 best, has won a pair of Big South 1,500-meter crowns and is a two-time all-conference performer at 800 meters.

Sophomore Jennifer Klugh, who placed third in the 2009 Big South Women's Cross Country Championship, presents another solid option in the mid-distance events. With all of this talent on the roster at the same time, Tolsma notes that the team's 4 x 800 and distance medley relay records could be in jeopardy this season.

Another redshirt senior, Ashley Osborne, has one season of outdoor track & field eligibility remaining and will use it in 2010. The 2009 Big South Women's Track Performer of the Year indoors, Osborne swept the 3K and 5K titles at last year's indoor conference meet. She also owns the Liberty outdoor 5K record, at 16:42.79.

Junior Dacia Bushman has developed into one of the Big South's best long-distance runners. She placed second in the 10K at the 2009 Big South outdoor meet and was the runner-up at the 2009 Big South Cross Country Championship.

Junior Hailey Neal, a transfer from Florida, placed 12th in the Big South Cross Country Championship, capping a solid first season with the Flames. She looks to be Liberty's top steeplechase option.

The high jump has traditionally been a strong event for the Lady Flames, as Liberty has won seven straight Big South indoor high jump crowns. Things should be no different in 2010, with past conference high jump champions Mia Aghaji and Christina Mitchell leading the way. Junior Marianne Wheeler should also contribute, as the former South Plains College athlete owns a 5-7 personal best.

Aghaji triple jumped 40-11.75 in high school, which gives her the longest personal best among the Lady Flames. Pegues is also coming off a freshman season which included a 38-11.75 leap and third-place Big South finish.

Aghaji and Pegues will also headline Liberty's long jumping crew, with both athletes owning personal bests of 18 feet or longer.

As with its men's counterpart, the women's pole vault is the strongest and deepest it has been in several years at Liberty. Houseknecht, who cleared 11-5.75 a season ago, highlights the returnees. She will be complemented by local product Shelley Parker, who sailed over 11-6 and won four state pole vault titles at Brookville High School.

The Lady Flames' weakest events in recent years have been the throwing events. That should begin to change this year, with the arrival of junior Melinda Bendik. She was a NJCAA All-American in the hammer and discus at South Plains College the last two seasons and should be a Big South contender immediately.

The hammer figures to be the Lady Flames' deepest throwing event this season, with junior Shekina Sims and sophomore Cassie Laminack showing marked improvement.

Multi Events
2009 team MVP Marie Williams, the defending Big South heptathlon champion, has graduated. However, the Lady Flames return Matthews, who won the conference indoor pentathlon title as a freshman in 2008. Joining her is Healey, the Big South sixth-place finisher in the heptathlon last season.

Mitchell has also displayed considerable potential in the multi events, and redshirt freshman Brittany Bingham, the daughter of associate head coach Lance Bingham, could make an impact as well.