Sharon Dickie is a senior leader this season
Feb. 20, 2003
When many people hear the word history, they immediately relate that term to past events. On the timeline of the University of Tennessee women's track and field program, there are many great moments and an endless list of national and international caliber performers of which it can be proud. The 1981 AIAW National Championship, eight NCAA or AIAW runner-up placings, 25 finishes in the national top ten, five Southeastern Conference titles, 21 Olympic appearances by its athletes and 78 athletes earning a total of 301 All-America citations are just a few of the numerous highlights through the past 22 seasons.
The definition of history, however, goes beyond what happened in the days of yesteryear. Because time does not stand still, history is also an on-going story with different groups of people experiencing life's twists and turns, facing its highs and lows and learning how to become better in the face of those adversities. Through those ebbs and flows, relationships are formed, lives are touched, and the inspiration for future paths is often discovered. Such is the case with first-year Lady Vol Head Coach J.J. Clark.
While watching his sister Joetta help turn UT into a collegiate track & field power as one of the world's best middle distance runners in the early 1980s, an impression was made on J.J. The fond memories of those exciting and highly successful years in Knoxville led him to once again fuse the Clark family name with Tennessee when he accepted the head coaching job here on May 23, 2002.
Things have come full circle, one could say, and Clark is clearly embracing and sharing the story of the program's proud past when he and assistant coaches Cathrine Erickson and Caryl Smith speak to recruits about becoming Lady Vols. The rookie skipper and his staff, though, are also focused on helping the 2003 squad reach its maximum potential and laying the foundation for an ambitious plan for the future. If Clark's goals are realized, the fruits of the program's labor will include SEC and national team championships. Not only are such objectives reflective of what has been done before at UT, they are also a foreshadowing of "History In The Making."
While such names as Barksdale, Clark, Fitzgerald, Harvey, Rattray and Walton turn up frequently in Lady Vol annals, new standouts are creating their legacies in Big Orange Country. Senior Sharon Dickie (indoor 5000m), junior Denita Miller (javelin), and sophomores Nicole Cook (indoor and outdoor 800m/4x400mR), Antoinette Gorham (indoor and outdoor 4x400mR), and Dee Dee Trotter (indoor and outdoor 4x400mR) have joined the roll of All-Americans and are becoming part of Tennessee lore.
It is with this handful of trailblazers and a youthful supporting cast that Clark and his staff embark on a new journey. He knows it will take time to get the program to the level where the coaches envision it, but Clark is anxious to begin that process.
"The group we have inherited is fairly young, and the only conference/national impact performer we lost from a year ago is Diane Slinden in the discus," Clark said. "There is talent here, and our goal as a staff is to maximize that talent and make it exceptional. We want to improve upon last year's performances and keep on going from there."
When looking at the results of the 2002 track and field season and then coupling that with what the cross country team did during the fall, it is apparent that the distance corps will be an area of strength for the 2003 campaign. What is even more promising is that the bulk of that group will return the following year.
One who will not, however, is Dickie, a senior whom competitors probably feel has been at Tennessee for what seems like forever. A 2001 All-American indoors in the 5000 meters and a key conference point-producer in the past, Dickie is hopeful of continuing the form that saw her earn All-SEC and All-South Region honors during the 2002 cross country slate.
Joining Dickie among All-Americans in the distance fold but running the shorter races will be Cook. The diminutive Virginian ranks among the leaders in the Lady Vol 800m record books and earned All-America honors with a ninth-place effort at the national indoor meet as a freshman.
Additionally, Cook distinguished herself as arguably the best half-miler at UT since Joetta Clark by finishing third indoors and claiming victory outdoors in the SEC Championships. She also duplicated her indoor NCAA All-America honors by garnering acclaim at the NCAA Outdoor Championships with an eighth-place result. For the record, she posted best times of 2:06.92 inside and 2:04.40 outdoors, ranking fourth and ninth, respectively, on the UT all-time performers lists.
Joining Cook as returning individual conference scorers in the distance events are juniors Erin Anderson and Jessica Southers as well as sophomore Elizabeth McCalley. After tallying as a freshman indoors in the mile, Anderson was eighth in the 1500m outdoors as a sophomore. Southers, meanwhile, secured her first SEC points in 2002, taking seventh indoors in the 5000m and sixth outdoors in the 10,000m. As for McCalley, the Knoxville native finished seventh as a rookie in the 3000m steeplechase at SEC Outdoors and improved her school record in that event four times during the season.
Looking to lend aid to the distance brigade are seniors Rebecca Collins and Amber Ayub, junior Christy Baird, freshman Rachel Zamata and a talented collection of newcomers who showcased their talents during the cross country campaign. That group includes redshirt freshman Brooke Novak as well as rookies Megan Cauble, Katie Flaute, Felicia Guliford and Mindy Sullivan.
Baird, who took eighth in the mile at SEC Indoors as a rookie, is again a conference scoring hopeful, and Novak, Cauble, Flaute, Guliford and Sullivan look to establish themselves at the collegiate level after standout prep careers. Most notable are Novak, who broke Suzy Favor-Hamilton's 1985 Wisconsin prep record in the 1600m; Guliford, a Gatorade Circle of Champions winner from New Mexico who handles everything from 800 to 10,000 meters; and Sullivan, a Texan who was a consensus prep All-American in the 800 meters as well as a Foot Locker finalist in cross country.
The only big-time distance "player" missing from a year ago is 800m runner Kameisha Bennett, who made the NCAA indoor provisional cut in 2002 with a 2:09.97 reading and reeled off an automatic time outdoors in 2:04.10. She will not compete this season due to personal reasons.
"Probably our deepest area at this point is the distance group," Clark said. "Though we want to be a balanced team, we have more impact performers in this area right now. With Sharon and Nicole having success at the SEC and NCAA levels, and Christy, Erin, Jessica and Elizabeth having scored at the conference level, there is a good nucleus. Add to that a solid group of newcomers, and we have a pretty nice blend."
While the distance crew has no shortage of personnel, the sprint group is operating below the numbers that first-year assistant coach Smith would like to see. Still, the unit is not without its stars, and with Smith's national reputation, more are sure to be attracted to Knoxville.
In her initial season, Smith will have the opportunity to work with junior Christina Billings and sophomores Toyin Olupona, Gorham and Trotter, who all tasted success in different areas as freshmen in 2002. In Olupona, Tennessee has a potential NCAA qualifier in the sprints. The Canadian, who posted a 7.36 60m dash reading in high school, was off to a strong start as a rookie before a hamstring injury knocked her off track. Under the careful tutelage of Smith, it appears she is well on her way to surpassing the form of her prep days.
As for Gorham and Trotter, that duo joined Bennett and Cook to formulate the Lady Vols' best 4x400m relay combination in over 15 years. The quartet took third at SEC Indoors in 3:36.45 (third best in school history) and went on to place sixth and earn All-America distinction at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
Outdoors, they only added to the excitement, finishing second at the SEC meet with Billings subbing for an injured Bennett, and snagging fourth at NCAAs, with Bennett back in the fold, to again elicit All-America acclaim. Their times of 3:31.49 (finals) and 3:32.09 (semifinals) at the national meet rank ninth and 12th, respectively, in UT history. While those spots on the school lists may not seem as impressive as the indoor ranking, they truly are when one understands that Tennessee has rolled out numerous American and collegiate record-setting outdoor 4x400m relay units over the years.
In addition to their relay prowess, Gorham (5th, outdoor 400m) and Trotter (6th, indoor 200m) both scored at the SEC level as first-year performers, while Trotter also qualified for and competed in the NCAA Indoor Championship in the 200 meters. Their ability to build upon that will be crucial as Smith attempts to develop several newcomers and persuade prep sprint stars to display their talents at Rocky Top.
Among those first-year performers Smith will be grooming are Carolyn O'Hora and Caitlin Ward as well as hurdlers Billings and freshman Catherine Wright. All will attempt to earn relay spots, and O'Hora and Ward will be given a look as heptathletes. Billings and Ward appear most likely to compete for Bennett's vacant spot on the 4x4, and Olupona may get a try as well.
"Our sprint corps has a bright future under the direction of Caryl Smith," Clark said. "Dee Dee had an outstanding freshman season, Antoinette continues to make big improvements and Toyin appears to be getting back into form. They compete with the attitude that they're going to win, and that's the kind of fire I expect from this group."
Another cadre that is showing a great deal of enthusiasm is the field events assemblage. Under the direction of first-year assistant coach Erickson, the throws area is in highly capable hands. Erickson, who has earned respect as one of the top throws coaches in the nation by producing NCAA champions such as Jamine Moton, has put her troops through a rigorous training regimen and by all accounts, positive results will follow during the spring.
The leading returnee of her group is javelin thrower Denita Miller, a junior who notched All-America recognition and won the SEC title as a freshman. After struggling a bit a year ago and overcoming off-season surgery and a mid-season foot injury, Miller bounced back to take second at SECs and came up just short in her bid to earn a repeat invitation to the NCAA meet. The Kansas native, whose best throw at UT is 159-3, is hungry for more and with senior Christie Elwin (7th, 2002 SEC meet) gives Tennessee a nice one-two punch in the javelin.
With four-time NCAA qualifier and 2002 SEC discus champ Slinden graduated, junior Janine Tessarzik steps to the forefront in the heavy implements. Tessarzik made great strides as a sophomore and nearly broke into the scoring column at SEC Outdoors with a career-best throw of 158-5 to place ninth. Sophomore Lindsey McFarland, who was 15th in the shot and 17th in the discus at the SEC Outdoor Championships as a rookie, rounds out the group. Limited by injury during the fall, her status for the current season is still in question.
"Cathy brings a lot of skill and knowledge to our throws events," Clark said. "She is capable of coaching athletes from the developmental level to Olympic caliber, as evidenced by her pupil winning NCAA Championships last year and performing well in international competitions. Under Cathy's tutelage, Janine has demonstrated great improvement, and we expect that Denita and Christie will be bright spots for us in the javelin."
In addition to full-time staff, Clark is fortunate to have the services of three volunteer coaches who mean a great deal to the program and who will no doubt offer a huge boost in the building of a complete team. Two of those are second-year aides, including former Olympic triple jump medallist Charlie Simpkins and Berry Shumpert III. Former Tennessee pole vault standout David Job returns to his alma mater to teach his specialty event.
Job is in position to offer immediate results, as he is fortunate to have the services of Elwin, a fourth-year vaulter who won the SEC crown as a freshman and earned an NCAA bid. She remains the school's indoor (12-8) and outdoor (12-9.50) record-holder in the event and is hopeful of traversing the 13-foot threshold in 2003. Joining Elwin will be untested sophomores Kendra Rhyne and Lauren McNeil, redshirt freshman Jessica Andrews and rookie Jessica Reust. Sophomore Jamie Rebella, who was formerly a triple jumper, has also shifted to the vault this season.
As with the throws areas, the depth of the jumps events will benefit from a season of recruiting. In the high jump, only junior Kelly Flowers returns. Flowers and multi-event trainee Ward are also expected to log action in the long jump.
"We have a very young and dynamic coaching staff," Clark said. "We're all here to share our knowledge and create an atmosphere where we have All-Americans in several event areas. We've already taken steps toward that goal by identifying national-caliber prospects, scheduling visits and educating them about all of the advantages this women's athletics department has to offer."
In addition to the numerous selling points regarding the staff, department and university, Clark can also promise that the Lady Vols will always embrace a schedule that provides them an opportunity to face top-notch athletes, see different parts of the country and compete in many of the nation's best track & field venues. That fact is evident in the 2003 itinerary.
During the indoor campaign, after opening with a warm-up meet at Stokely Athletics Center on Jan. 9, the Lady Volunteers travel to Blacksburg, Va., on Jan. 17-18 to test their skill at the Virginia Tech Kroger Invitational. Also on the agenda are trips to the scored SEC Challenge in Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 25; the Penn State National Meet on Jan. 31 through Feb. 1; the Gator Invitational in Gainesville, Fla., on Feb. 9; and the Armory Collegiate Invitational in New York City on Feb. 14 and 15.
After a last minute tune-up meet in Knoxville, the Tennessee Indoor Invitational on Feb. 21, the Big Orange harriers are back in Gainesville on March 1 and 2 for the SEC Indoor Championships. The indoor schedule winds up with a last chance meet on March 7 and 8 and the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., on March 14 and 15.
The outdoor season commences immediately thereafter with road trips to the FSU Relays in Tallahassee, Fla., March 21-22; the Raleigh Relays in Raleigh, N.C., March 28-29; and the SEC Challenge in Columbia, S.C., April 5. The Lady Vols then return home to host the annual Sea Ray Relays at Tom Black Track on April 9 through 12.
After a pair of large scale meets in the Mt. SAC Relays in the Los Angeles suburb of Walnut on April 17-19 and the prestigious Penn Relays in Philadelphia on April 24-26, Tennessee returns home for three straight. On the heels of the trip to Philly, UT hosts the Knoxville Invitational on April 27 and then follows with the Gatorade Classic on May 3 and the SEC Outdoor Championships on May 15-18, marking the event's first appearance at Tom Black Track since 1993.
A new wrinkle also graces the tail end of the schedule, as a regional meet was added to the mix as the way in which athletes must qualify for the national meet. Tennessee is slated to compete in the Mideast Regional, which will take place in Columbus, Ohio, on May 30 and 31.
Those who qualify in Columbus, and others who receive exemptions due to injuries or other circumstances, will travel to Sacramento, Calif., for the NCAA Outdoor Championships on June 11-14. For the nation's elite, the final stop in 2003 will be at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Palo Alto, Calif., on June 19-22. Clark believes the schedule he and his staff have set up offers the optimal combination of quality competition and top-notch facilities to prepare the Lady Vols to reach their utmost potential this season and in the future.
"Our philosophy is to compete against the best athletes and to go to the best facilities, and we are doing that," Clark said. "To reach our goals, it's also going to take some excellent coaching, because we have a very young group. Our staff is committed to developing the people we already have and on striving to bring in top-caliber student-athletes who will allow us to be one of the best programs in the country."
With that plan in action, it is only a matter of time before Tennessee is back at the forefront of collegiate track & field, both at the conference and national level. Clark and his respected collection of teachers and mentors will no doubt restore the luster back to the Big Orange program and provide volumes of positive material for those who document "History In The Making."