By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The time has finally come for the Tennessee Tech track and field team. The most important two days of the season are here.
After winning its first ever Ohio Valley Conference indoor championship last season, which included seven individual event winners, Tech has worn the bull's-eye on its back through the six regular-season meets of the 2018-19 campaign.
Now, the time to once again prove league supremacy has arrived.
On Wednesday and Thursday, inside the state-of-the-art Birmingham CrossPlex, head coach Wayne Angel's Golden Eagles have the opportunity to become the OVC's first repeat indoor champions since 2012.
"We're excited to be competing at the Birmingham CrossPlex this week," Angel said. "It's an excellent venue that facilitates great performances. We had a chance to compete there two weeks ago and obtained great results. It's a super place to host the OVC Championships, and we are thrilled and pumped about this wonderful opportunity."
Live results and ESPN+ video streams will be available for both days of the meet. Links are below.
Angel's group has turned in another fantastic season, registering six new TTU school records, and five individual victories and 23 top-five finishes at prestigious competitions such as the Vanderbilt Invitational and the Indiana Relays.
While Tech's competitive image within the conference has improved immensely under Angel's direction, and the program is elevating itself to the level of perennial contender, the coach and his athletes know that standing atop the podium for a second year in a row will not come easily.
"Even though we have experienced tremendous success in a short period of time, we are not resting on our laurels," said Angel. "We are not taking anything for granted. We are still in the infancy of our program and still forming and norming. It's still a process for us. I would not say that we have arrived yet. We have some lofty goals ahead of us as a program."
Much like last year's team, Tech will look to score big points with its lineup of seasoned, heavy-hitters in the sprints, distance-running and jumping events.
"We have some super athletes up front when you're talking about our veterans like D'Airrien Jackson, Khemani Roberts, Purity Sanga, Lisa Wickham, Cierra Tate, Raven Smith and Na'Scottisha Drummond," said Angel. "At the conference level it's about scoring big up front and scoring well in as many events with as many people as possible.
However, Angel acknowledged that while his team has the talent to accomplish the mission, it is missing some key point-scorers from a year ago, and will have to band together to fill those voids.
"We're not as deep as last year," he said. "Having lost Micayla Rennick and Sharnique Leonce to graduation makes us somewhat vulnerable in certain areas. It's a bit scary."
With less depth, Tech's margin for error is reduced as well, and if his team doesn't perform to its potential, the head coach sees several opponents that could threaten TTU's hopes at repeating.
"This year we have a lot of parity among teams in the OVC," he said. "I think there are five teams that have a shot at winning. We're fortunate to be one of them, along with Murray State, Southeast Missouri, Tennessee State and Austin Peay. They all have great coaches who are excellent leaders."
The Championships will kick off with the only two field events on Day 1, the long jump and high jump.
Roberts and Smith will be joined by Eshe' Robinson in the long jump, which will be first at 11:30 a.m.
Roberts broke Tech's indoor long jump record on two separate occasions this season; first with a 5.69-meter leap (18 feet, 8 inches) at the Indiana Relays, and then again with a mark of 5.72 meters (18-9 ¼) during her pentathlon performance at the Purdue Fred Wilt Open. She recorded her top placement in the event, a runner-up finish, at the Samford Bulldog Open on Feb. 9.
Her 5.72 is the fourth-best distance in the OVC this year.
Smith's top mark, a 5.63-meter attempt (18-5 ¾) that won her third place at the Fred Wilt, ranks tied for fifth on the OVC Indoor Performance List.
Roberts will be active in the high jump as well, which will take place at 2 p.m. She owns the league's top mark in the event this season, a 1.72-meter leap that was also part of her pentathlon victory at Purdue.
Drummond and Robinson will be alongside Roberts in the high jump.
Drummond hit the 1.70-meter mark for the first time at the Vanderbilt Invitational, which netted her second place among a star-studded field that featured eight Southeastern Conference adversaries. Her distance ties two other athletes for the second-best in the OVC.
Drummond's last three high jump results would all rank in the top seven in the league for 2018-19.
Robinson's best high jump mark, 1.55 meters (5-1), ties for 20th on the OVC list.
Robinson will also get the trials portion of the running events started for TTU, being the lone Golden Eagle entrant in the 60-meter hurdles at 4:15 p.m. Her best time so far this season is 9.35 seconds, set at the Fred Wilt Open.
Jackson comes off her most impressive showing of the season, circling the track in 54.79 seconds to claim victory at the Samford Bulldog Open. The Santa Clara, Calif. native was truly in a league of her own that day, coming in more than two seconds ahead of the runner-up, Payton Barlow of Belmont.
The mark also paces the OVC by a wide margin, as it is more than six-tenths of a second faster than the No. 2 time (55.41).
Anderson and Toney are peaking at the right time as well in the 400, having recorded marks of 1-minute, 1.15-seconds and 1:02.20 at Samford – both new personal bests.
Anderson, Jackson, Tate and Wickham are slated for the 60-meter dash trials at 5:45 p.m.
Wickham has left no doubt that she is the top 60 sprinter in the conference this season, with her 7.40-second, school-record mark from the Vanderbilt Invitational standing as the strongest testament.
Wickham has also posted times of 7.46 and 7.48 seconds this year, giving her the top three results in the OVC. Murray State's Tamdra Lawrence holds the No. 2 position on the league's performance list with a 7.50.
Jackson recorded a new 60-meter personal best last week at Samford (7.85), while Tate registered her best this season (7.86). Anderson's top mark came alongside Wickham at the Vanderbilt Invitational (7.92).
Brugere has the team's top time this year, a 2:20.32 from the Bulldog Open. The freshman from St. Charles, Mo. moved into the top 15 on the league list with that performance, coming in at No. 12.
McCowan recorded an indoor personal best in the event at the Bulldog, completing the race in 2:37.03.
Wickham, Jackson, Roberts and Tate are all entered in the 200-meter trials at 7 p.m.
Wickham took the team's fastest time this season, 24.41 seconds at Samford, which is the second-best in the conference this year. That mark gave her a second-place finish, which was one of her two top-five results on the season.
Roberts only ran the 200 meters twice during the regular season, but took the conference's seventh-fastest time with a 24.90 at the Indiana Relays.
Jackson comes in at No. 12 on the OVC list with her 25.33 that was also recorded at IU.
Tate ran her fastest 200 time of the season at the Bulldog Open, crossing the line at 25.46 seconds, which ranks 15th in the OVC.
Purity Sanga will be Tech's lone representative in the 5,000 meters at 7:50 p.m.
Sanga set a new TTU record in the event with her only attempt of the year, clocking a time of 16:46.31. Sanga has a stranglehold on the top spot on the OVC Performance List, holding a lead of more than 36 seconds on the league's No. 2 (17:22.59).
Wednesday's last event will be the distance medley relay at 8:30. Tech has yet to compete in the event this indoor season, but will choose a four-member team from a group that includes Anderson, Brugere, Janet Kwambai, Tate and Sharon Chepkemboi.
Roberts will compete again on Thursday morning, when she will put her pentathlon prowess on display starting at 9:20 a.m.
Roberts' lone appearance this year in the Pent was a memorable one, as she dominated the rest of the field at the Fred Wilt Open with a total of 3,791 points. As previously mentioned, that outing included a school-record long jump (5.72 meters), and the OVC's top mark for the year in the high jump (1.72 meters).
Robinson, who compiled a score of 2,835 points at Purdue, will also be in the OVC pentathlon field.
Sanga and Kwambai will take part in the mile run at 12:30 p.m.
As she does for all three distance events, Sanga holds the top mark in the league for the mile, having clocked a 4:54.55 for sixth place at the Indiana Relays.
Kwambai's best in the mile also came at Indiana, where she ran the league's 10th-fastest time in 5:08.49.
The respective finals sections for the sprints and middle distance events will follow afterward, starting with the 60-meter hurdles at 1 p.m. The 400 meters will be run at 1:45, the 60 meters at 2 p.m., the 800 meters at 2:40 and the 200 meters at 2:55.
In the meantime, Smith and Drummond will have their showing in the triple jump at 2:30 p.m.
Smith set the program record for the triple jump on two separate occasions this year, most recently with a 12.05-meter leap (39-6 1/2) at the Bulldog Open. That attempt gave Smith her first career victory in the triple jump, and ranks second in the OVC.
Drummond comes in 14th on the OVC triple jump list with a 11.22-meter effort (36-9 ¾) from the Bulldog Open.
Keyanna Word will throw the shot put for TTU at 3 p.m.
Word launched the shot put 9.19 meters (30-2) at the Fred Wilt Open, which set a new personal best.
Sanga, Kwambai and Chepkemboi will comprise Tech's entrants in the 3,000 meters, which will be held at 3:15 p.m.
Sanga's OVC-leading time of 9:35.36 came at the Bulldog Open, and gave her first place in the race. A sizable gap separates her from the second-fastest time in the league, a 9:57.02 put up by Southeast Missouri's Kaitlyn Shea.
Kwambai cracks the OVC list for the 3K as well, coming in at No. 14 with a time of 10:19.13.
It will be Chepkemboi's second career attempt in the 3,000m. She recorded a 10:26.19 in her first try as a collegian.
Tech will wrap up the Championships with the 4x400-meter relay at 4 p.m. The foursome will be picked from six athletes, including Anderson, Brugere, Jackson, Roberts, Tate and Wickham.
At the Bulldog Open, Tech took its best time of the season using a squad made up of Jackson, Roberts, Tate and Wickham. That group finished in 3:49.86, which is the second-fastest time in the OVC this year.
"We are ready, willing and able," said Angel. "We've earned the right to be representing Tennessee Tech this week. We've paid the price, and we will be looking for results. In studying the history of Tennessee Tech, I'm reminded of a quote that I read by a former dean at the university (Austin Wheeler). He said, 'in the ruggedness of Tech's past lies the promise of its future.'"
"This week in Birmingham looks very promising for the Golden Eagles of Tennessee Tech."