May 16, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – A track and field team with 60 points in a four-day college championship meet doesn’t sound like much.
Yet, that was Marshall’s goal in last week’s Conference USA Championships in Houston. After all, in seven previous appearances, the Herd hadn’t finished higher than 11th in a 12-team field, and hadn’t scored more than 28 points.
This time, MU senior Vanessa Jules scored almost that many points by herself – 23. Her stunning 5,807-point C-USA record performance in the heptathlon started the Herd toward a fifth-place finish with 63 points – edging UTEP (62) and UAB (61) for sixth and seventh … and toward bigger and maybe better things.
“I figured maybe seventh or eighth, hopefully,” veteran Marshall Coach Jeff Small said. “Fifth was way too much wishful thinking, or so I thought.”
Jules, of Silver Spring, Md., heads toward the NCAA meets (first round and nationals) with a second-best heptathlon score nationally in 2013. She also won the high jump and finished sixth in the 100 hurdles and landed the Performance of the Meet honor for women.
“I knew it was going to come at some point,” Jules said of her performance. “I knew I had the potential. It just shocked me that it came right then and there. I PR’d (personal record) in five events, which really shocked me, but I wanted it bad, wanted the title bad.
“What I was thinking going into the meet was, ‘Do what you’ve got to do to get the points for the team.’ I didn’t think about placing this in nation, or this. The goal was 60, hit 60. Got to win the hep, got to win the high. I wanted to make history with our team my last year, but I did not think I’d place No. 2 in the country.”
Now, Jules takes her heptathlon effort into the NCAA nationals, scheduled June 5-8 in Eugene, Ore. Prior to that, in the NCAA first round (formerly East region) meet in Greensboro next week (May 23-25), Marshall will have record representation.
Athletes must rank in the top 48 in an individual event and relay teams need a top-24 regional placing to qualify. While Jules has qualified in the high jump (15 regional ranking), long jump (36) and 100-meter hurdles (44), Small’s team also has Crystal Walker in the long (5) and triple jumps (26), Jasia Richardson in the triple jump (10), Amanda Kennedy in the javelin (14) and a 4x400 relay team (17) qualified.
That 4x400 quartet – Amber Pierson, Kearra Haynes, Loren Dyer and Shanice Johnson – “sent the school record into the stratosphere,” Small said with a 3:37.58 clocking at the C-USA meet. That topped a school record set last month at the Penn Relays by 5.9 seconds.
That’s nine NCAA qualifiers. Last spring, the Herd had three (Jules, Richardson and Walker). It’s little wonder Small has called this MU’s best team “by far” in his 18 seasons as the Herd coach.
The national and regional rankings stand with a school-record book that has been regularly rewritten. The Herd had eight indoor school record performances in six events in the indoor season. Outdoors, there have been 16 Herd record-setting efforts in 11 events.
The accomplishments have come with a qualifier, too. During the C-USA Championships, Small was talking with UTEP Coach Mika Laakonsen, whose team won the men’s conference title.
“He said to me, ‘What kind of facilities do you guys have?’” Small recounted earlier this week in his Henderson Center office. “I told him, ‘We don’t, no indoor track, no outdoor track.’ He couldn’t believe it.”
The Herd’s new Indoor Athletic Facility – on which construction is scheduled to start soon – will change that, with a six-lane, 300-meter oval. Obviously, Small and his assistants and athletes have made the most of their daily grind.
And while the rankings and records are great, small said, he’s just as encouraged and warmed by efforts like Kelley Mortakis provided in the 3,000 steeplechase (11:10.01, a school record) and Celia Leonard’s 17:45 in the 5,000 meters. Those bettered their personal records by 28 and 29 seconds, respectively.
Small mentioned the 9- and 6.5-foot improvements, respectively in personal bests in the hammer throw by Beth Drury (145-0) and Carrie Corriell (146-8), too.
“We had 28 personal bests at the conference meet,” Small said. “You just don’t see that coming. We got a lot of compliments from the other coaches and teams. It was fun. Everybody was really clicking.”
It was a performance that brought various reactions.
Assistant coach Lacee Carmon-Johnson “was crying her eyes out,” Small said. And after the Herd realized that it had finished fifth behind the four teams leaving C-USA (UCF, SMU, Houston and Memphis), assistant coach Willie Johnson “declared us the winners of the meet,” Small said, laughing.
Jules not only was superb. She also was stunned … and more than once over the four days in Houston.
Small said he thought a 5,570 score in the heptathlon was a reasonable expectation for Jules, whose school record was a 5,216 last spring.
“Yes, 55-something was what I thought,” Jules said. “When I finished running the 800 (the last event in the heptathlon), Coach came up and said, ‘Do you know what you just did?’ By then I’m gassed out, breathing hard, I just want to get my breath. Then he said, ‘You just scored 5,807.’
“I said, ‘OK, that’s great, can I get some water? I’m tired right now.’ I walked back to bench and he says, ‘You got 5,807 won the hep. You don’t understand, you’re No. 2 in the country.’ And I was like, ‘What? Can you say that again?’”
Jules won the 100 hurdles, high jump, 200 and long jump. She was fifth in the shot and 800 and sixth in the javelin.
“A school record in the 200, (24.37), I never saw that coming,” Small said. “A long jump of 20-1/4 qualifies for the nationals in another event. Her javelin was 119-1, her personal best by 15 feet. She won the high jump, but it was only one-centimeter (5-11 1/4) off her school-record.”
And while small said the 5,807 heptathlon score was stunning, he listed the 3:37.58 in the 4x400 as “even more surprising.”
“That 4x4 was unexpected, and I’m so happy for those four girls,” Jules said. “They work really hard. I want to say the 5,807 was surprising, but it still hasn’t hit me yet. I’m not going to say it’s just OK; it’s huge, No. 2 in the country, but the 4x400 team for me, I’m so proud of them. That’s a real accomplishment. They just absolutely smashed the school record. Six seconds? That’s crazy.”
On her own performance, Jules said “it just happened.
“I don’t like to look at numbers going into a meet, don’t like to look at the height,” the Herd senior and psychology major said. “I don’t like to know the height. I train for it, do what I have to do, as long as I get myself right in my mind, practicing. If it hits, it hits. If it doesn’t, we go back to the drawing board.
“I was surprised (in the heptathlon) by my long jump, 200 and javelin. I didn’t know I was going to jump 20 feet. I dreamed about jumping 20 feet, but never in real time. I PR’d in javelin, my 200 broke the school record I wanted to break since I was a freshman (set in 2004 by Zedmalia Wolfe, 24.43).
“That 200 was a big deal to me. Like I said, the 5,807 still hasn’t hit me yet. For some reason I feel like I can do better. I’m satisfied with the 5,807; how could you not be? But I feel like I can score many more points.
“I was really happy with our fifth place, because we’ve been at the bottom for so long. We were louder than the first-place team (UCF) because we were so excited, with so much improvement. A lot of teams really excited for us.”
The best for Jules was saved for last, when Chris Grant, the director of sports services for C-USA, was presenting the final awards.
“Usually after a meet, we stay a bit, have our (team) meeting,” Jules said. “We were standing there for a long time, looking at people getting their awards and I’m thinking, ‘OK, what are we waiting for?’ We placed fifth, we’re happy. We’re taking pictures with medals.
“Amber (Pierson) is standing beside me, I’m looking at my phone, checking my calls, and they said Performance of the Meet, the guy (UTEP’s Anthony Rotich), and I clap. Then they say ‘Performance of the Meet (for women)’ and they say my name an I’m looking and my phone and thinking, ‘OK, they just said my name’ So, I look up and I instantly start crying and my team, they’re all jumping and screaming. I’m looking at them like, they just said my name. Tears are coming down my face and I’m walking up to the guy, Chris Grant from C-USA. He was like, ‘Congratulations, we’re proud of you, you work so hard.’ And I’m standing there thinking, ‘Wow, this is great!’”
So, Jules heads with her teammates to the NCAA first round at North Carolina A&T thinking big.
“I am a goals person,” she said when asked what she wants next week. “At regionals for the high jump, want to hit 6 feet; it’s there. For the hep, the 100 hurdles, want it down to a 13.5 (from her school-record 13.68). If I can hit 23.99 in the 200, that would be perfect. My long jump can definitely improve, my javelin and shot can definitely improve and my 800 can improve.
“So, that’s why when they say 5,807, I know I can do better.”
The NCAA awaits for more Herd runners and jumpers than ever.