By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – Coach Wayne Angel and the Golden Eagle track and field team will likely face their stiffest challenge to date as they try to repeat as outdoor champions of the Ohio Valley Conference. Rising programs around the league, along with an adjusted Tech lineup will make for an especially tall task when the OVC Outdoor Championships are contested at Southeast Missouri Thursday-Saturday, May 9-11.
Action from Abe Stuber Track Complex, SEMO's on-campus venue, will get underway at 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, continue Friday morning at 9:30, and conclude Saturday with events beginning at 8:30 a.m.
"This will be an extremely tough conference championship meet," said Angel, Tech's fifth-year head coach. "By no means are we out of it, as we still have a lot of athletes competing who know how to step up in the big moments. The experience of our healthy veterans needs to shine through for us to be successful."
While the defending champion Golden Eagles have earned their reputation as an intimidating force at the league meets, and will still have prolific point-scorers such as Khemani Roberts, Purity Sanga and Raven Smith at their disposal, they will be without a duo of veteran stalwarts in the sprints and middle-distance events, as well as a pair of promising freshmen.
Absent from the Tech lineup in Cape Girardeau will be track stars Lisa Wickham and D'Airrien Jackson, who helped score a combined 52 of Tech's 119 points at the OVC Indoor Championships back in February, and were key contributors to the outdoor title run last May.
Wickham's loss was expected, as the senior exhausted her outdoor-season eligibility after accounting for 18 points at last year's OVC meet.
Jackson, the conference's reigning outdoor champion in the 400-meter hurdles and runner-up in the 400-meter dash, will not be able to compete due to a lower leg injury.
"We are going into this meet as underdogs," said Angel. "Without D'Airrien, Anya, Janet and Lisa, we are leaving about 35 to 40 points at home."
Those voids have forced Angel to shift his personnel. Most notably, Roberts, the best heptathlete in the conference by a wide margin, will not partake in the multi-event at the league meet. Instead, she will have her abilities spread out over six standalone events – the 100 and 200-meter dashes, the high jump, the long jump, the 100-meter hurdles and the 4x100-meter relay.
The two OVC adversaries expected to push Tech the hardest at the meet are Austin Peay and the homestanding Redhawks from Southeast Missouri.
Southeast Missouri came in fourth at the OVC Indoor Championships, accruing 76.5 points, while Austin Peay was the fifth-place finisher, totaling 68.5.
SEMO is especially good in the middle and long-distance events. Junior Carli Knott holds the league's top mark in the 800 meters, and is second to Sanga in the 1,500, where fellow juniors Kaitlyn Shea and Danielle Mohrmann also hold top-10 conference times.
Shea also has the OVC's top time for the 3,000-meter steeplechase, while Anna Thomas and Maddie Keller join her in the top six. Shea is a force in the 5,000 meters as well, along with Rachel Hutchcraft, as both athletes are listed among the top five.
The Redhawks shine in the throwing events too, as they boast at least one top-six conference athlete in the shot put, the discus, the hammer throw and the javelin.
Austin Peay hangs its hat on the sprints, featuring four athletes in the top 10 for the 100, 200, and 400-meter dashes. Tiyanna Johnson ranks fourth and sixth, respectively, in the 100 and the 200, while Kyra Wilder is slotted sixth in the 100 and second in the 200. Sabrina Richman boasts the league's top mark in the 400 and ranks fifth in the 200, while Tymeitha Tolbert adds to the depth with top-10 splits in both the 100 and the 200.
Emmaculate Kiplagat gives the Governors a presence in the distance events, holding the second-best 10,000-meter time behind Sanga.
The Govs are also solid in the hurdles, as Lennex Walker is No. 2 in the 100-meter hurdles, while Nia Gibbs is No. 5 in the 400-meter variety.
Their sprinters' speed also serves them well in the relays, as APSU has the league's top time in the 4x400, and the third-fastest time in the 4x100.
"Austin Peay and Southeast Missouri will be tough to beat, no question," said Angel. "Austin Peay has probably the best team they have had since I have been at Tech, and they will be hungry. They will score a lot of points in the sprints, and we will have to bring our very best to keep pace with them."
"Southeast is better in the distance events, and they will have several athletes who will score well for them there. Plus, they are the host, which is always good for a few extra points."
Without Roberts, senior Eshe' Robinson will be Tech's lone competitor in the heptathlon when it kicks off the meet festivities at 9 a.m. on Thursday.
The rest of Tech's opening-day events won't get started until eight hours later, when Sanga and freshman Vivien Chesire toe the line for the 1,500 meters at 5 p.m. Sanga will be expected to score well in the event, as she owns the league's top mark for the regular season, 4-minutes, 26.32-seconds.
Jordan Toney and Jessica Walsh will line up for the 400 hurdles at 5:45 p.m., followed by Teauna Anderson, Roberts and Ceirra Tate in the 200 meters at 6:15. Sharon Chepkemboi will go in the 10,000 meters at 6:45 – the final event of the evening.
Roberts and Tate are ranked fourth and eighth, respectively, on the OVC list for the 200 meters so far this year.
Robinson will complete the second portion of the heptathlon on Friday morning, unwrapping the day's events at 9:30.
A five-hour break will ensue before Tech's next event, the high jump, where Roberts and Na'Scottisha Drummond will look to rake in a significant contribution to Tech's team score. Roberts is the No. 1 high jumper in the OVC, and matched her own Tech record by clearing 1.77 meters (5 feet, 9 3/4 inches) earlier this year. Drummond is slotted fourth on the OVC Outdoor Performance List with a season-best of 1.70 meters (5-7).
After another off-period, three more events will start simultaneously at 5 p.m.
Abby Mink will step into the circle for the discus throw, while Drummond, Roberts, Robinson, and Smith will take flight in the long jump. Roberts will pull double duty to represent Tech in the third event – the 100-meter hurdles.
With three athletes all situated in the top 10 in the OVC, the long jump figures to be another productive event for Tech.
Roberts has the conference's second-best distance – a school record 5.96-meter leap from the Western Kentucky Hilltopper Relays. Drummond's huge PR from the Louisville Lenny Lyles/Clark Wood Invitational, 5.81 meters (19-1 3/4), is seventh-best in the OVC, and Raven Smith comes in at No. 9 with a 5.75 (18-10 3/4).
Roberts also ranks 12th in the 100-meter hurdles with a season best of 14.65 seconds from the Virginia Challenge on April 20.
Friday's running events will continue with three sets of preliminaries.
The 400-meter prelims will be first at 5:45 p.m., with Tate acting as Tech's lone entrant. Her most recent attempt in the event resulted in the league's fourth-fastest time, 57.19 seconds.
Tate will then join Anderson, Roberts and Robinson in the 100-meter prelims at 6:05. Tate holds the team's fastest mark of the year, 12.01 seconds, which ranks eighth in the OVC. Roberts follows with a 12.13, No. 14 in the league.
Chepkemboi will then provide Friday's nightcap for TTU, making her second collegiate attempt in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at 7:15 p.m. Her mark of 11:34.38 is 10th-best on the OVC outdoor list.
Outside of the various finals sections, just four other events will be decided on Saturday.
Tech's day will start with the triple jump, where OVC No. 2 and outdoor school-record holder Raven Smith will look to score big points at 11 a.m.
SIUE's Brittney Gibbs ranks first on the OVC leaderboard, the same athlete Smith upset to become league champion in the event during the indoor season. Robinson will join Smith in the triple, hoping to be an additional point-scorer.
The 4x100-meter relay will be next at 12:30 p.m. Anderson, Drummond, Roberts, Tate and Toney will make up the pool of runners that could be selected to run.
Mink will try her hand in the shot put at 2 p.m., and the women's 4x400-meter relay will be the final event of the meet at 4:15.
The schedule for the finals sections will be as follows:
12:50 p.m. – 1,500 meters
1:15 p.m. – 100-meter hurdles
1:35 p.m. – 400 meters
1:55 p.m. – 100 meters
2:10 p.m. – 800 meters
2:30 p.m. – 400-meter hurdles
2:45 p.m. – 200 meters
"We're coming in with the mentality that we are going to leave everything on the track and let the scoring take care of itself," said Angel. "There are some things we can't control, but worrying about those won't help us whatsoever. We are going to SEMO to represent Tennessee Tech with pride, and give everything we have."