Jan. 10, 2007
Despite having a national championship finally under his belt, 10th-year head coach Ralph Spry isn't satisfied. After winning the 2006 women's outdoor national title, his 2007 Auburn Tigers should once again be major players in the national scene, but this year it's the men's team that looks to have the best shot at some hardware of its own.
"Coming off a national championship is phenomenal," said Spry. "We had a great year and we're going to try to continue building off of last year. On the men's side, we return a lot of quality, experienced athletes. We're almost like the women's team was last year. We don't have a whole lot of depth, but we do have a lot of quality.
"The good thing the women's team had last year was a lot of great senior leadership, but of course we lost a lot from last year's team. We lost probably two-thirds of our production, but we do return some lethal firepower."
The Auburn men's team redshirted several of its top athletes last year due to a combination of injuries and an eye towards the future. So although the Tigers could not duplicate their top ten finishes both indoors and outdoors from 2005, they are poised to make a lot of noise this season with several returning All-Americans. Two-time NCAA shot put champion Edis Elkasevic - one of last year's redshirts - is joined by returning Auburn All-Americans Ty Akins, Jacob Dunkleberger, Cory Martin, Reuben McCoy and Shamar Sands, plus All-American transfers Mark Johnson and Donald Thomas.
"We have the SECs coming up at home in 2008, so we were really trying to put the team together for this year and next year," said Spry about his 2006 redshirts. "It should be an exciting year on the men's side. We have a team that will be a factor at the national championships, and also will be a very solid conference team."
The women's squad lost several key performers from last year's team, but return the reigning SEC and Mideast Runner of the Year, Kerron Stewart, who earned six All-American honors in her first year on the Plains. Michelle Vaughn is the only other returning All-American, and is joined by national qualifiers Katalin Mate and Michelle Williamson. Several newcomers will be asked to make immediate contributions, and early indications are they will pick up where last year's senior class left off.
"This year we don't quite have the depth that we had last year, but we do have some quality returners," said Spry. "We probably won't be quite as good as we were last year, but our goal is to get in the top 10 this year. We've got a real good recruiting class coming in, so we hope that in the future we can get back to where we just were."
As a coach with 12 top ten national finishes on his resume already during his stint at Auburn, it's a good bet that both squads will make their presence felt again this year and in years to come.
Auburn will face its typical challenging indoor regular season schedule to help the Tigers prepare for the February 23-25 SEC Championships in Lexington, Ky. In a break from the norm, Auburn will begin its campaign at the Clemson Invitational. Another new stop at the Indiana Relays will join trips to Florida and Arkansas prior to the SEC meet.
The indoor season concludes with a fifth straight trip to Arkansas for the NCAA Indoor Championships on March 9-10.
After a short break following the indoor season, Auburn will open the 2007 outdoor season by hosting the Springtime Invitational March 24. It will be one of three home meets at Hutsell-Rosen Track for the Tigers, who also host the Tiger Track Classic April 6-7 and the Auburn Invitational April 21. Auburn will cross the country to compete at the Georgia Tech Invitational, the Sun Angel Classic in Tempe, Ariz., and the Penn Relays.
The Tigers will take a week off after Penn Relays to prepare for the SEC Outdoor Championships, which will be held May 11-13 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. From there, athletes who have met the regional qualifying standard will compete at the Mideast Regional in Columbia, Mo., hoping to earn a spot at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Sacramento June 6-9.
As always, the goals for the season include keeping the teams focused and staying healthy. If the Auburn men and women can achieve those goals, top-10 finishes both indoors and outdoors are certainly within reach, with even greater achievements possible.
Auburn once again has a number of talented hurdlers and has a nucleus of young sprinters that will make this a strength of the Tiger squad.
The hurdlers lead the way, led by returning All-Americans Reuben McCoy
, Ty Akins
and Shamar Sands
. McCoy was the SEC champion in the 400m hurdles last year as a sophomore and placed fourth at the NCAA Championships in that event. Akins competed in the 60m hurdles at the NCAA Championships last March, narrowly missing a spot in the finals, and also qualified for the NCAAs in the 110m hurdles. Sands, the 2003 NCAA runner-up in the 110m hurdles, made a strong comeback from nagging injuries last year by qualifying for the outdoor NCAA meet, and looks to be healthy this year.
"Shamar will probably do some sprint doubles, as well as Reuben McCoy who will also run the 400m," said Spry. "With Shamar and Ty in the short hurdles, they should be a real force for us this year at the conference and the national level, and Reuben is one of the top 400m hurdlers in the country. Shamar is a former NCAA runner-up, and Ty got a lot of experience last year and that's going to pay off for us this year.
All three hurdlers will be in the mix for spots in the relays, as will a pair of sprinters - senior Greg Rogers and sophomore Hailey Foster.
"Greg Rogers, who came in as a walk-on, has really worked his way up and has made great strides," said Spry. "He's a senior this year and I'm really excited to see what he's going to do. Hailey Foster had some injuries last year but he's really had a good fall this year. I think he'll shape up and be a solid sprinter for us."
Auburn is stacked in the throwing events with quite possible the best trio of throwers in the country. The Tigers' Edis Elkasevic, Cory Martin and Jacob Dunkleberger have combined for two individual national championships, 10 All-American honors and seven SEC Championships.
"We have a really solid group of throwers returning," said Auburn assistant coach Jerry Clayton. "They should make an impact at the national level as well as the SEC level. It is a very, very strong group of throwers, and we're looking for outstanding things out of all of them"
Elkasevic leads the group, having won NCAA Championships indoors and outdoors in the shot put as a sophomore in 2005 before redshirting last year. Elkasevic is a five-time SEC Champion in the shot put and discus.
"Edis had an injury last year so we redshirted him," said Clayton. "We'll be looking for him to come back strong in the shot put indoors and outdoors and the discus outdoors."
Martin was the 2006 SEC indoor champion in the weight throw and placed third at the national meet before redshirting during the outdoor season. He can contribute in the weight throw and shot put indoors, and the hammer, shot and discus outdoors.
"We're looking for big things from Cory both indoors and out," said Clayton. "He was seventh at the USA Championships in the hammer this summer and threw a lifetime best in that meet (69.97m, 229-7)."
Dunkleberger earned All-American honors in the weight throw last year in his first year at Auburn after transferring from Miami (Ohio), placing fifth at the national meet. He is also expected to compete in the weight throw and shot put indoors and the hammer, shot put and discus outdoors.
"Jake contributed greatly to the team in the weight throw, and also in the shot put at the SEC meet, setting a lifetime best. We redshirted him outdoors but still he had an outstanding season even though he was redshirting."
In addition to Auburn's All-American trio, the Tigers will look to the future with redshirt freshman Lloyd Lassiter gaining experience.
"Lloyd is probably going to take another year or so to develop, but we're looking for him to at least get some competition under his belt this year and set some PRs, and hopefully he'll contribute at the conference level by his junior or senior year," said Clayton.
Also added to the mix is freshman Luke Gaines, who will throw the javelin. Gaines threw 185 feet in high school.
One area that is sure to show improvement this year for Auburn is the high jump, where Donald Thomas joins the squad after finishing as the runner-up at the 2006 NAIA national championships and placing fourth at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Thomas will be joined by a pair of freshmen in Luke Robinson and Steven Abernathy.
"Donald is an outstanding jumper," said Clayton. "He has only jumped one year but ended up jumping very high and made his name known in the track world by jumping 7-3 in Nike Shox in his first meet. We're really looking for big things from him. I believe he will develop into an NCAA scorer in the high jump if he continues to do what he has done in the past.
"With our freshmen, we're really looking for them to get their feet wet this year, try to make the adjustment to the SEC level and then we're looking for big things out of them in the future."
The Tigers have also added an All-American in the pole vault, as Mark Johnson comes to Auburn after earning 2005 All-American honors while at Coastal Carolina.
"Mark should help us out right away, and will hopefully pick up another All-American certificate this year during the indoor season," said assistant coach Scott Richardson.
In the multi events, redshirt freshman Jager Livingston is ready to try his hand at the heptathlon and decathlon after a year of preparation.
"In the decathlon it takes a few years to develop, so this year we're looking for Jager to get experience," said Clayton. "He's come along very well over the past year and made great use of the redshirt year, and is working very hard."
Auburn's distance group includes several talented young runners that hope to burst on to the scene this year while helping shoulder the loss of 2006 NCAA qualifier Andrew Heath. The group is led by Jordan Davis, a regional qualifier in the 1500m who finished fourth at the SEC meet in that event.
"We think Jordan can qualify for NCAAs indoors and outdoors anywhere from 1500m up to 5000m," said assistant coach Peter Watson
. "During the outdoor season we're also going to experiment with the steeplechase for him. He can run eight minutes or below for a flat 3,000m indoors, and if he can hurdle even decently, the steeplechase is going to be very exciting."
A new addition to the team is Macharia Muriithi, the Kenyan National Secondary Schools Cross Country champion in 2001 and 2002, and the Secondary Schools' 5000m champion in 2000.
"Macharia is going to be an exciting addition in the 5000m and 10,000m outdoors and the 5000m indoors," said Watson. "He's going to add a lot of depth and hopefully we'll be able to score a few more points by having him there in the 10,000m."
Veteran Joey Giattino will be joined by newcomers Scott Novack and Simon Nyang to help round out the shorter distance events, with Patrick Philbin and Chase Oliver slated to run the 5000m and 10,000m.
"It's a young group with a lot of potential," said Watson. "They're really training well and looking to make the transition very quickly. They are not yet at the level of Andy Heath, but they do have potential and are working very hard."
Auburn lost a great deal of talent and experience, as All-Americans Markita James, Josanne Lucas, Tamara Thomas and Jovanee Jarrett all graduated, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Six-time All-American Kerron Stewart returns for her senior season and is joined by some fresh young faces that are sure to make an impact.
Stewart was the NCAA runner-up last year in both the 100m and 200m at the outdoor champions, and also placed in the 60m and 200m at the national indoor meet.
"Kerron Stewart will lead the way," said Spry. "She's clearly someone who could be a national champion both indoors and outdoors at both sprints, and will probably do relay duties as well. She had a phenomenal year last year, and has had a great fall, so we're really excited about the leadership she'll provide this year. She'll set the tempo for this program this year."
Junior college transfer Tracy Ann Rowe should step right in and help Stewart in the sprints, particularly the 200m, having earned five individual top-three finishes during her career at the NJCAA championships.
"Tracy Ann Rowe is somebody that we feel can come right in and have an impact at the SEC and also the national level, training along with Kerron," said Spry.
Freshman Shaquela Williams, a Broward County Athletic Association champion in the 100m, is also expected to be an immediate contributor in the sprints.
"Shaquela has come in and worked very hard and has looked very good," said Spry. "I think she can contribute at the conference level for us right now, and we're excited about her future."
In the hurdles, junior Jasmine Johnson returns after finishing fourth in the 400m hurdles at the SEC meet behind James and Lucas. She will be joined by freshman Danielle Gilchrist, a four-time Oklahoma state champion in the 100m hurdles and three-time champion in the 300m hurdles.
"Danielle was one of the top high school hurdlers in the country last year," said Spry. "She's somebody that will have an impact, and along with Jasmine Johnson, it will give us a little bit of depth.
Auburn has a group of young throwers who gained experience last year and are ready to burst onto the scene this year. Leading the pack is Katalin Mate, who was an NCAA finalist as a freshman last year in the discus, placing 11th, and scored in the SEC meet in the discus, javelin and shot put.
"Katalin really contributed a lot to the program in her first year," said Clayton. "She scored 14 points at the SEC outdoor meet, which was I believe was the highest scored by any freshman in the meet.
Another key returner is Valentina Srsa, who struggled through injury problems during her freshman season in 2006.
"Valentina came in as a really good hammer thrower and also throws the discus, shot and javelin," said Clayton. "She had some injuries last year and hopefully some of those will get resolved and she will help contribute at the SEC level for us this year."
Also joining the mix is redshirt freshman Tiffany Spry, who is ready to begin competition after training all of last season.
"We are looking for her to develop in the weight throw, the hammer, and the javelin" said Clayton. "She's had a good fall."
Auburn lost NCAA outdoor long jump champion Jovanee Jarrett, but triple jump All-American Michelle Vaughn is back for her senior season.
Vaughn was the SEC indoor champion in the triple jump and earned All-American honors after placing eighth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Senior Imani White
and sophomore Amelia Anderson
add depth at the horizontal jumps.
"Michelle is coming off a solid season," said Spry. "She was an All-American last year, and she should have an even bigger impact at the national level this year."
In the high jump, senior Michelle Williamson will set out to earn All-American honors this season after reaching the finals at the outdoor championships last year, where she placed 12th.
"Michelle had an outstanding season for us last year," said Clayton. "She was very consistent, between 5-9 and 5-11. She has the experience of competing at the national meet so this year we are expecting her to contribute even more at the NCAA level."
Williamson is joined by a pair of sophomores that showed promise during their initial seasons. Raevan Harris cleared 1.78m (5-10) in her first collegiate meet, but was unable to match that performance. Danielle Threatt cleared 1.65m (5-5) on several occasions last year.
"Raevan had an OK year last year but we're looking for her to step it up now that she's made the adjustment to the college level," said Clayton. "We're looking for her to push Michelle and hopefully score at the SEC meet and make it on to the NCAA meet.
"Danielle had a great year last year, and we're looking for her to contribute more this year. She has a lot of natural talent and ability and came a long way technically last year."
Auburn must recover from the loss of All-American Angela Homan, but what the Tigers lack in star power, they make up for in depth. Whereas Homan was Auburn's only point scorer above 400 meters in the SEC meets last season, the Tigers now have several runners that will contend in a number of races.
The distance group is led by newcomers Sabrina Fischer, Laurel Pritchard and Miriam Arusei and one returner in Jessica Smith.
Arusei (Kenya) and Fischer (Germany) are both foreign imports, while Pritchard is a 14-time Alabama state champion in track and cross country.
"Sabrina is a phenomenal talent that works very hard and does all the little things right," said Watson. "Indoors we're going to focus on the mile and 3000m with her, and I think we can get her to nationals if she can stay healthy at 1500m outdoors.
"Laurel is going to be an Angela Homan-type, running the 5000m and 10,000m. She has a ton of potential and works hard, and I think she's going to put up some great marks as a freshman at 5000m."
"If Miriam can come off the injury she suffered this fall, we'll look for her to hit some regional standards as well."
Smith primarily ran the 1500m and the mile last season, and was one of Auburn's more consistent runners during the 2006 cross country season.
"Jessica has done some good things for us in the past, and this year she's going to look to hopefully make an SEC final as a junior," said Watson.
"We have a lot of young women," added Watson. "Losing Angela Homan hurts. We can't make up for her points right away, but in the future, with the development of these women, we definitely can."