Gamecocks Bring Experience, Top Youth to Track with NCAA Title Hopes|
Most college teams will list 'NCAA Championship' as their goal for any season. This year is no different than most at South Carolina, with the women ranked No. 1 preseason and the men at No. 13. The buzz around Head Coach Curtis Frye's Gamecock camp is championship. A quick look at the roster is a virtual who's who of college track and field. A fully loaded arsenal of talent, speed and athleticism adds substance to USC's national title hopes.
Last year the Carolina women took home two NCAA trophies with a runner-up finish indoors and a fourth place finish outdoors. The squad had an NCAA champion in Demetria Washington, set a collegiate record to win the NCAA Indoor 4x400m relay and won eight SEC titles. But the best news in Columbia is that the Carolina women return seven All-Americans - Lisa and Miki Barber, Tacita Bass, Sheneka Griffin, Mechelle Lewis, Kylene Nixon and Demetria Washington. Both of the Barbers and Washington participated at the USA Championships a year ago and won medals at the World University Games. Mix in the nation's top recruiting class and the women's team looks ready to take the jump from its runner-up status indoors the past two years, to a possible national championship.
For the USC men's team, the credentials are nearly as impressive. In 2001 the Gamecocks placed seven in the NCAAs, saw an individual claim an NCAA crown and four participate at the USA Championships. Also, just like their female counterparts, all but one returns in 2002.
NCAA Champion Otukile Lekote returns alongside five other NCAA participants. Lekote won the 800m outdoors in 2001 and followed that up with a bronze medal at the World University Games. His time of 1:44.47 was the fastest by a collegiate in 2001. Otis Harris, an NCAA All-American in both the 400m and the 4x400m relay is a Dandy Dozen 400m pick along with Andre Totton, a selection in the 200m, highlighting the men's roster. In addition, relay All-Americans Clint Crenshaw, Shamus Singletary and Gerald Pressley return looking for individual NCAA honors as well. Corey Taylor should look to score in the hurdles after qualifying indoors and outdoors last year.
This returning roster would make most coaches very satisfied, but Carolina mentor Curtis Frye did not stop there. Frye brought to the USC campus this fall the top-rated recruiting class in the country on the women's side and a fine bunch of talent on the men's side. When you mix that new talent with the slew of returning stars, it is easy to understand the hype and excitement surrounding the Gamecocks.
USC also has outstanding leadership with its captains on both sides, as voted by their peers. The men's captains are Jared Farabee, Otukile Lekote, Garry Martin, Gerald Pressley, Chris Steddum and Andre Totton. The women's captains are Lisa Barber, Miki Barber, Tacita Bass, Aisha Grant, Kylene Nixon, Rachel Smith and Demetria Washington. "This is one of the finest groups of leaders I have ever been associated with," said Frye. "They work hard on the track and in the classroom. They set a fine example for our younger athletes."
"We have a lot of returnees and a very good recruiting class, so we are looking forward to having a good year," Frye said. "We should have a good 4x100m on the men's and women's side. Our women's team won the 4x400m relay indoors last year but placed third outdoors - and we look to improve on that this year. The men would also like to improve on their third place finish from indoors last year."
"We get back everybody but Pap Howard, which will be a significant loss," Frye said. "But Andre had our fastest times last year but did not make All-American. I think Andre will be able to change that. Otis Harris is back, more determined than ever. He did not make All-American outdoors after doing so indoors, so that is driving him. We should have those two experienced guys to go along with a very good freshmen group. Jonathan Fortenberry looks like he will be very strong. Thomas Lewis and Duan Barrino are also two that will help us out a lot."
Crenshaw returns for his senior year having been All American every year in relays. The USC staff is looking to Crenshaw to lead the men's squad back into the top 10. "We are looking for Clint to have a breakout year and get there as an individual and make some efforts to score in the SEC," said Frye.
Harris, an NCAA and USA Championships participant, provides talent in the 400m and the 4x400m relay. The Edwards, Miss., native turned the track world on its ear as a freshman but should catch no one by surprise in his second season at USC. "Otis is one of our top quarter milers," Frye said. "Last year he scored as a freshman, which is very, very difficult. We look for him to step up and score at a higher level this year. As an All-American in the 4x400m relay, he will continue to lead us with his athleticism."
Frye is also impressed with the work and progress of Pressley, a junior from nearby Mauldin, S.C. Pressley, who suffered an injury that hindered his production in the outdoor season, has trained very hard to regain his status as the leader of the sprinters.
"Gerald had a great indoor season, helping lead our 4x400m relay team to a third place finish at the NCAA Indoor meet. We look to see if Gerald can come back after being injured during outdoor, and if he returns to that level - and there seems to be no reason he shouldn't with the way he is training out there now - our hopes are that Gerald will make a great contribution and be an NCAA scorer. Our expectations are very high with our sprint group, and Gerald at the captain is the leader of this group."
In the hurdles, Corey Taylor and Fred Townsend stand out at Carolina's top two performers. Taylor should vie for All-American honors. Townsend, fresh off a stint with the USA Junior National team, has also impressed the coaches with his maturity this year.
"We have a lot of experience, depth and youth," said Frye. "But a lot of this rides on staying healthy. We need a break out year in the hurdles from Corey Taylor. We can be a top 10 team if things go our way."
"Our sprint team consists of a great deal of talent, and I feel they will be the strongest part of our team to help carry us if we are to reach the next level," Frye said during the fall preseason.
"I think our women have an opportunity to do something unique, individually as well as collectively," continued Frye. "We have an exceptional group of talented seniors, juniors, freshmen and transfers who have come together to make up a great unit."
Seniors Miki and Lisa Barber, both All-Americans and USA Championship participants, headline the impressive roster. Miki, a 16-time All-American, looks to defend her 400m SEC Championship this year while Lisa is looking to contend in two different events in both the indoors and outdoors.
"We feel like Miki, if she can get over the injuries from a year ago, can get back to her 2000 form and could be contingent to be the Athlete of the Year she was in 2000," Frye said.
"Lisa can be a contender in the 60m and the 200m indoors, and the 100m and 200m outdoors," said Frye. "Barring injuries she can do an excellent job making that step to the next level."
Carolina junior Demetria Washington, a member of the school's record-breaking 4x100 and 4x400 teams, is poised for another solid season after a breakout junior campaign. Washington, the Indoor Regional Athlete of the Year, won the 400m NCAA title last year indoors and was the runner-up outdoors. Washington also was a member of three SEC relay championship teams.
"Demetria Washington is starting to hit her flight as a true champion," Frye said. "Her junior year was a breakout one, and juniors normally breakout, so she didn't disappoint anyone and she had a great year. We look for her to have an even better senior year."
Fifth-year senior Sheneka Griffin, an important piece to the winning puzzle in 2001, returns looking to provide equal support in the 4x400.
"Without Sheneka, we would not have set the NCAA record nor would we have won the NCAA championship indoors with the relay," said Frye. "She's made a commitment to the team in 2002. She's back for her fifth year and with quality in her efforts, we look for her to continue to make contributions to the program."
"Antoinette Wilks is our top upperclassman hurdler, but she will have a good support group this year," Frye commented. "Lashinda Demus, Tiffany Ross and Shevon Stoddart are all very strong freshmen. We don't know how good they will be, but they were some of the very best in high school."
Mechelle Lewis, if healthy, will also be a force, as she has already achieved All-American honors with the 4x100m relay. A 4.0 student, Lewis has looked good in pre-season work-outs.
Bass, the 400m SEC hurdles champion in 2001, will look to improve on her school record time by gaining All-American honors in the same event.
Frye's recruiting class, ranked No. 1 in the nation by several recruiting outlets, puts the Gamecock program in fine shape for many years to come. Demus, the two-time Track and Field News National Athlete of the Year, is joined by high school All-Americans Ross and Stoddart. All three are accomplished hurdlers and sprinters will who add punch to the relays as well. Demus holds the national record in the 300m hurdles at 39.9 and was fifth at the USA Championships in the 400m hurdles in 2001.
"I think this class will help the program over the long haul, definitely," Frye said. "But upperclassmen are where you win championships. Meets are much different than high school meets, so if the freshmen and sophomores can make a contribution as a total group and score about 20 points, then they will have done their job. That may come from seven or it may come from two, you just never know.
"Two-thirds of your scoring has to come from your upperclassmen, and we have a solid group to do that," added Frye.
"Obviously our strength in the middle distance is the 800 meters with OT," said first year distance coach Stan Rosenthal. "Otukile, the returning NCAA outdoor champion and an All-American indoors, we feel like he should compete for those same things again this year."
Lekote does have support, particularly in the 800m. Rosenthal is optimistic that this squad has the potential to produce towards the end of the season.
"Senior Mark Howell is our best miler," added Rosenthal. "He is in very good shape, and if he stays healthy like he did all fall, I feel like he has the ability to run between 4:10 and 4:15 for the mile, which would help our DMR, and hopefully run in the 14:30s for the 5000 M. Definitely, Otukile and Mark are our two top guys right now."
Joining both Lekote and Howell on the roster are talented freshmen Frankie Burnett, David Marchmer, and Anthony Viccellio in addition to sophomore Matt Schreiber.
"Unfortunately, on the women's side we lost our two top 800m runners to graduation, Andrea Hallman and Kristina Brown," said Rosenthal. "With that, we have moved Mikisha Lewis up from the 400 group to the 800's this year, and we feel like she is capable of scoring in the SEC and qualifying for the NCAA."
For the longer races, cross-country standout Jenny Lake prepares for her first collegiate track season with high expectations. Also, Gamecock newcomer Lashinda Demus, one of the nation's most acclaimed high-school recruits of her class, figures to be a prominent player in the USC fortunes in numerous events, including the 400m hurdles.
"Jenny is our best 1600m person, she will most likely anchor the distance medley relay," commented Rosenthal. "I would expect Mikisha will probably run the 800 leg on the distance medley relay. But, we also have Lashinda Demus, a 400m hurdler. She ran a 2:09 in high school as a sophomore in the 800m."
"We do have a lot of 400m runners and not as many 800m runners," said Rosenthal. "Seniors Abby Sox and Kinsey Eschenburg will hopefully be two of the people that will possibly run the 1200m leg on the DMR."
Rachel Smith, a senior captain, had her best cross-country season in 2001. In fact, both Sox and Eschenburg also turned in some of their best performances - a fact that motivates Rosenthal's outlook.
"We feel that, based on those performances and improvements this fall, they can have their best track seasons as well," said Rosenthal. "Of course, staying healthy is very important."
"They have the ability and they are all working very hard, especially over the break," said Rosenthal of his two squads. "Everyone in this group wants to accomplish good things, and I've been really pleased with the attitude of everyone on the team. This is, as a group, the hardest working team I've ever worked with."
Sophomore Fred Townsend, who USC recruited as a hurdler, has been shifted into Quarles' camp to participate in the decathlon, a move that Quarles looks at as vital to the squad's success.
"We are expecting Fred to contribute quite a bit for us this year at the SEC level in the multis," said Quarles.
Talented senior Sean Krawiecki and junior Ben Yocum offer depth and support in the multi-events. Both have competed at the SEC level in the past.
"Returning senior and team captain Tacita Bass means everything to us," Quarles said. "She won the Texas Relays heptathlon title last year as she PR'd her score just shy of the school record, scoring 5600 points in the heptathlon. We will be planning a little less of a load at the national meet for Tacita in order for her to be one of the top three scorers in the heptathlon at the national level."
Joining Bass this year is Antoinette Wilks, who Coach Quarles thinks might also participate in the heptathlon. Wilks, a junior from Jupiter, Fla., was an NCAA participant last season in the long jump (indoors). She also set a school record in the long jump at 21'8.
"Tacita is a very experienced athlete as a multi-eventer," Quarles added. "She is an All-American in the relays, and that experience is very valuable. Antoinette is clearly one of the top jumpers in the country, so they both bring a lot of experience to the group and leadership on both ends. We have a good mix of experience and youth. We are hoping that mix will create a winning atmosphere."
"Clearly we have two very experienced vaulters coming back in Chris Steddum and Jared Farabee," said vaults coach Kevin Brown. "Chris was an NCAA qualifier last year and we expect Jared to join him in that this year. Of course, they finished one-two at the SEC outdoors last season, and we look forward to doing that in the indoors as well. Jared is jumping really well this preseason. He worked very hard over the summer, so I look for him to get to nationals and be an All-American also."
Models of consistency and hard work, Steddum and Farabee stand out to Coach Brown as a pair of special athletes. "Their work ethic is what makes them so good," continued Brown. "I've coached several vaulters and these two have to be the hardest working guys that I have seen. They just don't leave any stone unturned. Even when I tell them what to do, they go out and do more. The difference between regular athletes and great athletes is that the great ones know how to fill in the spaces, and both Chris and Jarred do that."
A talented freshman from Columbia, S.C., Greg Royster, has caught the eye of Coach Brown in early season workouts. The Spring Valley product turned in a 16-foot jump during his high school career. "We look for some help out of our freshmen this year, particularly Greg Royster," added Brown. "I look forward to him improving by at least a foot."
Also new to the men's squad are freshmen Travis Beck and Lee Fletcher, who will provide needed depth and support on the roster.
"Lori and Kylene had a chance to go to some high-level meets last year and I think that benefited them," said Brown. "They are now at that next level. They saw last year where they had to be to compete. Experience like that will benefit them."
"In addition to the experience of Lori and Kylene, we also have a couple of newcomers who I think can score some points for us in the conference, finishing in the second half, like Rachel Farabee and Karlee Butler," said Brown.
Farabee, the younger sister of Jared, joins Butler as two talented and potential impact newcomers. Overall, Coach Brown looks forward to a productive year from his two squads.
"We have a good, solid group this year," said Brown. "With five guys and five girls, that is a benefit for us going into meets like the SEC. Having a group like this, I always say 'everybody brings something to the table'. The freshmen have good leaders to follow who can set the tone for their careers here at South Carolina."
"We should have Sean and Fred leading us in the high jump this season," Quarles added. "They will contribute a great deal, particularly in our scoring meets. Fred is on the verge of doing very well and being a national contender in a lot of things he is doing right now, so I am excited by his progress. Those two young men should be solid leaders for the rest of our team, which is not quite as experienced as they are."
Wilks does have some talented newcomers joining her this season, as highly touted transfer Rashida Abdul-Malik joins the USC family from Connecticut. Looked upon to be a performer in both the triple jump and long jump, Quarles is expecting both of those ladies to contribute at the SEC level as well as the national level.
"Rashida has adjusted very well to South Carolina," said Quarles. "She is a very mature athlete as well as an individual. After going through a year at this level, she definitely has what it takes to be a leader and a contributor for this team.
"The whole group has improved drastically from summer to fall," added Quarles. "As a group we have some very good point potential at both SEC's and the nationals. As the season goes along we want to continue to get better. Hopefully, next year we'll have some more jumpers to add to what we've started this year."
Chalsea Hammond, an outstanding high school jumper, will also add depth in the jumps as she improves on the collegiate level. Quarles looks for big things from her in the future, possibly even this year.
"The overall group is a young one, but we do have a number of returnees who are experienced at the SEC level," Sergent said. "Aisha Grant is our leader overall - she has stepped up and taken this role on willingly. She is our senior, and with us training together as a group, she is looking to close out her career the way she wants, so she is motivating all of us."
"Injuries are probably the first footnote on the men's side," Sergent said. "We have Adam Bishop and Chris Vanderbrink returning this year (both redshirt-sophomores) with Adam returning from shoulder surgery and Chris back from a broken wrist that had him out all of last year. Despite that, it looks like they can both be SEC scorers for us. They are still young and both have very bright futures."
Sergent is also high on true sophomore Scott Alsup. The Haverhill, Mass., native competed in the javelin a year ago and the experience should help him in 2002. "Scott Alsup is a good candidate to score at the SEC's in the javelin," Sergent said. "His progress has been very steady and positive.
"Keri Groover has been looking solid in fall and winter practices, and it looks like she is going to be able to make some contributions this year as well," continued Sergent. "Our recruiting classes have gotten a lot of attention and publicity, but Groover is someone I feel has been overlooked in that group. She is the sleeper of the group. She can be a surprise just because of everyone she came in with. She has a great deal of raw talent, and when she harnesses that talent, she will be very good."
"The throwers have the capability to make a big impact on the team standings at the SEC Championships,". said Sergent. "We have some young people trying to fill some big shoes from some of the people we lost a few years ago."
Gamecock fans, if USC can put it together on both sides, expect Carolina to be on the awards podium both individually and as a team in record numbers in 2002.