By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Trailing upset-minded Murray State with three events remaining, the Tennessee Tech track and field team needed a crucial lift in crunch time to keep its hopes of a second straight Ohio Valley Conference indoor championship alive.
With the pressure on, the Golden Eagles soared the highest, posting back-to-back-to-back first place results in the 3,000 meters, the triple jump and the 4x400-meter relay to clinch the second title in program history.
"We came here with the expectation that we were one of the dominant teams, and we wanted to perform like the defending champions," Tech head coach Wayne Angel said. "No one panicked when we were behind late. We remained focused on the task at hand, and bounced back with excellent showings from some of our team leaders."
Purity Sanga, who recorded one of the greatest performances in OVC Indoor Championship history and was deservedly named the Female Athlete of the Championships, kicked off Tech's last-minute march to victory.
Running in her fourth distance event in two days, Sanga completed the 3,000 meters in 9-minutes, 51.29-seconds to place first out of 25 competitors. It was Sanga's third individual title of the Championships, to go with a fourth title as part of the distance medley relay Wednesday night.
The Kapsabet, Kenya native became the first OVC distance runner to win the mile run, the 3,000 meters and the 5,000 meters since Morehead State's Amy Beatty in 1999.
She is also the third Wayne Angel pupil to win both Athlete of the Year and Athlete of the Championships, joining Gilbert Boit and Micayla Rennick.
Raven Smith accounted for the next clutch performance, posting a dominant win in the triple jump. Smith obliterated her own school record with a 12.55-meter leap (41 feet, 2 1/4 inches), which beat her old mark by exactly a half-meter (12.05m, 39-6 1/2) and bested the rest of the field – including top-seeded Brittney Gibbs of SIUE – by an entire foot.
Smith's two-day performance was sensational, as she scored a total of 18 points for TTU with her triple jump title and runner-up finish in the long jump. Both jumps set new standards in the Tech record book.
To clinch the championship, Tech won the 4x400-meter relay with a time of 3-minutes, 48.90 seconds.
After three legs of the race, it did not appear that TTU would triumph.
And then, D'Airrien Jackson took the baton as the anchor.
Jackson, who won the 400-meter dash earlier in the day with a time of 54.63 seconds, made up significant ground in heroic fashion on the race's final leg, before pulling into first place with less than 50 meters to go to claim the top finish.
While the final three events highlighted a special pair of days in Birmingham, they were far from the only reason the purple and gold reigned supreme at the top of the league yet again. Tech entered the day in great shape after a successful first day and continued to build on that momentum with a strong start to Thursday.
"We set the tempo early with some outstanding performances that put some teams on their heels," Angel said. "We had a great first day and wanted to take advantage of our momentum and apply the pressure. It worked out in our favor, Tennessee Tech defended its title with class."
Thursday's slate of events began with the pentathlon, with two Golden Eagles in competition. Roberts placed second in the 60-meter hurdles, setting herself up nicely for the rest of the event with a time of 9.11 seconds. She ran off three straight first-place finishes in the high jump (1.76 meters), shot put (11.69 meters) and long jump (5.78 meters) to take a commanding lead.
She clinched the gold medal in the pentathlon with a sixth-place showing in the 800-meters, crossing the finish line with a time of 2:28.24 to finish with a total of 3,954 points. With her performance, she set the program record for points in a pentathlon.
Also competing in the event was senior Eshe Robinson, who scored 2,847 points after finishing the 60-meter hurdles in 9.49 seconds, turning in a distance of 1.58 meters in the high jump, tossing 9.25 meters in the shot put, leaping 4.93 meters in the long jump and crossing the finish line in the 800-meters in 3-minutes, 6.71 seconds.
Sanga turned in her first-place showing in the mile early in the day, posting a time of 4-minutes, 57.69 seconds to pace the field. Also participating in the event, Janet Kwambai was the 10th runner to cross the finish line among the 27 racers, turning in a time of 5-minutes, 13.68 seconds.
Both Wickham and Tate earned points for the Golden Eagles in the 60-meters prior to their joint heroics in the 4x400. Wickham sprinted to a time of 7.49 seconds, placing second in the finals. Tate was sixth after a finish in 7.66 seconds.
Wickham also earned a fifth-place finish in the 200-meters, dashing to the finish in 24.81 seconds. Jackson and Roberts each competed in the 200-meter final as well, capturing times of 25.11 seconds and 26.66 seconds, respectively.
Joining Sanga in the 3,000-meter hunt were freshmen Sharon Chepkemboi and Janet Kwambai. Chepkemboi captured the top time in her heat, ranking 11th overall with a time of 10-minutes, 20.70 seconds. Kwambai was close behind in the final standings, closing her day with a 10-minute, 28.24 second performance.
Na'Scottisha Drummond kept Smith company in the triple jump pits, closing out the day with a distance of 11.28 meters. In the shot put, Keyanna Word completed her turn in the OVC Championships with a distance of 9.48 meters.
Thanks to nine events titles between Wednesday and Thursday, the Golden Eagles earned a grand total of 119 points. The nine titles represented one more than last season's championship squad, which claimed eight. Among those gold medal events were the 5,000-meters, distance medley relay, high jump, heptathlon, mile run, 400-meters, triple jump, 3,000-meters and 4x400-meter relay.
Tech edged out Murray State for the title by 11.5 points and was nearly 30 points better than third-place Tennessee State.
Coming as no surprise, and in addition to Sanga claiming OVC Athlete of the Championship, Wayne Angel was named OVC Coach of the Year for the fourth time in his career.
"I'm so proud of these ladies," Angel expressed. "They made history again."
Photo by Michael Wade