Women's Track And Field Looks To Continue Its Dominance
Jan. 30, 2003
For the USC women's track and field team, the last four seasons have been like a dream.
That's because in the last four years, USC is the only team to finish in the top three at the NCAA meet each year while also winning a national title at least once.
Hence, the Women of Troy can now lay claim to being the preeminent program in women's track and field.
In the past few years, the best athletes in the country have passed through Troy, including Angela Williams, Torri Edwards, Natasha Danvers, Brigita Langerholc, Cynthia Ademiluyi and Tatyana Obukhova.
In 2003, those names are all gone, so it will be a rebuilding year of sorts. But plenty of big names also return and, with the addition of yet another fine recruiting class, this year's version of the Women of Troy can not be counted out at the NCAA meet.
That's because of USC's 57 points scored at the 2002 NCAA Championships held in Baton Rouge, Louis., 29.5 points will return in 2003. And while USC likely won't duplicate its electrifying one-two finish in the 100 meters, there are plenty of potential points to be scored in other areas.
"There are definitely some voids to fill," said USC Director of Track and Field Ron Allice. "I like the overall attitude of this group in terms of work ethic. How that translates into results this season is a question mark.
"We are rebuilding. We are young and we will stay young for the next two years. It's difficult to lose the people we did and recover. But the cupboard is not bare. We've got an NCAA champion returning and some All-Americans in the throws, as well as some people who made the semifinals in their events."
For once, the Women of Troy won't have to travel very far in May and June, as the 2003 Pac-10 Championships will be at USC's Katherine B. Loker Stadium on May 17-18, the NCAA West Regionals are at Stanford on May 30-31 and the NCAA Championships are in Sacramento on June 11-14.
The addition of he regionals adds a new twist to what is already a hectic last month of the season.
"It's a different game now with the regionals," he said. "You can be left at home if you are not at your best. Regionals will be cut throat time."
It should make for an exciting season of track and field at USC.
USC's sprint corps had a banner season in 2002, as senior Angela Williams won her record fourth-consecutive NCAA 100 meter title, while newcomer Natasha Mayers won the 200-meter title and placed second to Williams in the 100 meters. It will be nearly impossible to replace Williams, who is the greatest sprinter in USC history, but Mayers--now a senior--showed in a flash last season why she was so highly regarded coming out of junior college. Last year, she had bests of 11.09 in the 100 meters and 22.80 in the 200 meters and scored a team-high 18 points at the NCAAs--the second most in Women of Troy history at one championship meet. This year, she is aiming to become the first USC woman ever to win both those events at the same NCAA meet. After Mayers, look for sophomore Alexis Weatherspoon (11.76/24.13) and juniors Tiffany Bennett (11.86/24.01) and Miya Edmonson (11.89/24.17) to step up a level. Weatherspoon and Edmonson were two of five USC women in last year's Pac-10 100-meters final. Also, keep an eye out for freshmen Tracee Thomas (11.5/23.2). Between these five athletes, plus freshman hurdler Virginia Powell, there is the makings of a pretty good 400-meter relay squad.
"Mayers is an elite sprinter who has a great competitive fire," said Allice. "She exploded onto the scene at the NCAAs and hasn't looked back. We expect her to continue to perform at a high level and take her place among the all-time greats at USC. Weatherspoon, Bennett and Edmonson are all up-and-coming, but are in need of more competitive exposure. We will need them to perform when the pressure is on. Thomas is a tough runner who has good range from the 100 meters on up to the quarter."
The quarter is where senior co-captain Nakiya Johnson (52.17) reigns as the defending Pac-10 400-meter champ. She advanced to the 400-meter semifinals at last year's NCAAs and should be back in the thick of it once again. She is also fourth on the all-time USC 400 meters chart. Thomas and intermediate hurdler Aleksandra Pieluzek might also see time in this event.
"Johnson is an excellent quarter-miler," said Allice. "She is a team leader whose experience will be invaluable to us at the big meets. I expect her to have a great season. Backing her up will be Thomas and maybe Pieluzek at times."
Johnson, Pieluzek and Thomas will likely make up three-fourths of the 1600-meter relay squad. The fourth spot is undetermined at this point, though freshman hurdlers Tunisia Johnson and Virginia Powell are possible candidates.
Like the sprints, the middle distances are a traditionally strong area for USC. Last season, Aleksandra Deren was an All-American in the 800 meters. This season, however, the Women of Troy do not have a scholarship athlete in either the 800 or 1500 meters. So it will be up to sophomores Gina Clayton (2:12.82) and Crystal Becker (2:14.94) to come through in the 800 meters, while seniors Danielle Morrell (4:32.40)--a Pac-10 qualifier--and Brooke Thomas (4:36.31)--an NCAA qualifier in cross country--will be the main stalwarts in the 1500 meters. Beyond the 1500, it is pretty much the same story. Walk ons Holly Peters (12:45.12) and Harlye Maya (18:45.36) will compete in the steeplechase and 5000 meters, respectively. Thomas (17:38.05) will also run the 5000 meters--she is third on the all-time USC 5000-meter chart.
"The middle distance area is one in which we've had an All-American nearly every year, but it's not as strong this year," said Allice. "The people we have improved last year, though. Morrell is a good, solid athlete who will make a contribution. Thomas did a great job in cross country and that should carry over into track. Clayton and Becker are developing and could help us down the road. Peters and Maya, as well as several of our other people down the depth chart, are tough competitors."
The hurdles loses All-American Natasha Neal, who was sixth in the 100-meter hurdles at the NCAAs, but 400-meter IM hurdler Aleksandra Pieluzek (57.58) returns. Pieluzek, a senior, advanced to the semi-finals in her event at the NCAAs last season. She had a great fall program and will be joined in the 400-meter hurdles by freshman Tunisia Johnson (42.32 HS), a freshman with great potential who also runs the 100-meter hurdles. Another dynamite freshman, prep All-American Virginia 'Ginnie' Powell (13.39 HS) will be featured in the 100-meter hurdles. Big things are expected of Powell, who may also run a leg on the 400-meter relay team. Senior high jumper Spring Harris (14.32) also runs the short hurdles.
"We don't have a lot of depth in the hurdles," said Allice. "We're maybe a year away from being really strong. Pieluzek has looked great in practice and should do well come NCAA time. Powell is a great athlete who has the ability to help us in a number of events. If Johnson, who was one of the best high school hurdlers in California last year, can adjust to the 400 hurdles, she'll be able to help us right away."
There is another void to fill in the jumps area, where two-time All-American and three-time Pac-10 Champion in the triple jump Tatyana Obukhova departs, as does two-time Pac-10 long jump finalist Disia Page. Senior Erin Williams (19-0) is the leading returning long jumper. She'll be backed by senior Karen Ota (18-7 3/4) and sophomore Tiffany Jones (17-10 3/4). In the triple jump, Ota (36-3 1/2) is the leading returner. The high jump is in good shape with senior Spring Harris (5-10 1/2), who has the potential to break the six foot barrier.
"The jumps are another area in which we are not as strong going into the season, but we will see how they develop by conference time," said Allice. "It is very difficult to replace jumpers of the caliber that we had the last couple years. This year, we just have to hang on and do the best we can. It helps to have Harris there. She is a veteran high jumper who has scored points at the Pac-10s for us in that event, as well as in the heptathlon. She is concentrating on the high jump this year. She has shown she can jump at a high level, so if she comes through again, that will really help us. Our other jumpers are going to have to develop this season."
Though All-American Cynthia Ademiluyi departs, USC once again has a star-studded throws program. Returning is 2002 NCAA javelin runner-up Inga Stasiulionyte (186-10), a junior who won the 2001 NCAA title as a freshman. The Pac-10 record holder, she is as good as any other javelin thrower in the nation. It took an American record by Purdue's Serene Ross to defeat her last season, but this season, she will be a favorite to recapture the crown. Backing her up normally would be another outstanding javelin thrower, junior Leslie Erickson (168-11). However, Erickson has an elbow injury and will miss the season. Freshman Andrea McBride (178-9) should more than pick up the slack, though. She has the potential to make quite an immediate impact at USC. In the hammer, USC has the dynamic one-two punch of senior Julianna Tudja (210-11) and junior L'Orangerie Crawford (205-5). Tudja is the school record holder, while Crawford is No. 2 all time. Tudja placed third in the hammer at the NCAAs as a 2001 sophomre, while Crawford was sixth as a sophomore last season. The combo gives USC two of the best hammer throwers in the nation. Not to be counted out is versatile senior Amy Thiel (187-5), who was seventh in the hammer at the Pac-10s and is currently fifth on the all-time USC hammer chart. Thiel also throws the shot (47-10) and discus (159-10), while the aforementioned Crawford (53-8 1/4) is an all-star performer in the shot put as well and has the potential to be the best in USC history in that event.
"Stasiulionyte is a great athlete who has been exceptional for us since day one," said Allice. "McBride is another great athlete in the javelin. She played volleyball and basketball in New Zealand. We hope she can help us right away. We are very strong in the hammer with Tudja and Crawford. Tudja owns the school record and Crawford is right behind her. They both give us great experience and talent in the hammer. I expect Crawford to also improve in the shot, where she has loads of potential. Thiel is an all-around thrower. She helps us in three events, so she is invaluable."
The women's pole vault had its inaugural season at USC in 2002. Sophomore Melissa Astete (12-6) is the cornerstone of the program and she turned in a solid freshman season, finishing ninth at the Pac-10s. She certainly has the potential to be one of the best pole vaulters in the conference. Sophomore Shannon Lewallen (11-7) backs up Astete.
"Astete just missed scoring at the Pac-10s last season," said Allice. "She has the talent to score some points for us this year. Lewallen gives us a bit of depth there."
With Spring Harris concentrating on the high jump, USC will not have a competitor in the heptathlon.
Though the Women of Troy have lost a lot of starpower, Allice is confident that his team will perform at a high level when it counts.
"A lot of it has to do with how our people develop," said Allice. "Like I said before, we have some voids in the distances and horizontal jumps. But we are solid in the throws and sprints. We have enough NCAA points stored to fair well at that level, but as for the conference and dual meets, we will have to wait and see."