COLLEGE STATION – In hosting the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships for a second consecutive year, the Texas A&M men will have the rare opportunity to defend their 2017 national indoor team title on its home facility, the Gilliam Indoor Stadium, this Friday and Saturday, March 9-10.
Last March a deafening roar from the packed stands propelled the Aggies to victory in the 4x400, which enabled Texas A&M to clinch the national championship by just half a point over Florida.
“It doesn't get any bigger than this, with us hosting the NCAA Championships indoors,” said Aggie head coach Pat Henry, who is in his 14th season with Texas A&M. “This is the biggest meet of the year during the indoor season and we get to host it in College Station. It’s great for our fans, our team and I think our facility makes it great for the sport.
“It’s nice not to have to travel and stay home, but more importantly you get to compete in front of the 12th Man and that’s great for our team. “
The Aggie men, ranked sixth nationally, return 32 points from their winning total of 46 through three individuals and three-quarters of the 4x400 relay.
Last season the relay picked up 10 points with the last-event win while runner-up performances were achieved by Audie Wyatt in the pole vault and Will Williams in the long jump for 16 additional points. Mylik Kerley, who supplied the anchor leg on the relay, also placed third in the 400m.
Wyatt and Williams will seek to score in the NCAA Indoor meet three consecutive years. Prior to his silver medal in 2017, Wyatt placed sixth in 2016. Williams finished in seventh place in 2016 and claimed a silver medal in 2017.
“This weekend is going to be a time our jumps group breaks barriers,” stated Williams. “Hopefully, we can set up the team to score big come Saturday. I always tend to keep my confidence level-headed, but the long jump can be a very unexpected event. Sometimes you don't know what is going to happen. I tend to listen to a lot of old-school music to relax before a competition.”
Texas A&M men will have seven entries in the meet from seven athletes in five events. The Aggie women, ranked 10th nationally, will have eight entries from nine athletes in six events.
“On the men's side we have a returning group and have some people who have been in the battle,” noted Henry. “I feel good about the men's group, and I think we can be in the mix if we do everything correct. On the ladies side it would take a gargantuan effort, but if we can get in the top 10 it will be a great accomplishment for this group.”
Only a pair of athletes and half of the 4x400 squad return for Texas A&M women, who tied for 12th place a year ago with 13 points.
Jazmine Fray, the collegiate record holder in the 800m, placed fourth in the NCAA Indoor meet a year ago and anchored the 4x400 relay to a third place finish. Danyel White, who joined Fray on the relay, set a career indoor best of 23.00 in the prelims of the 200m, but placed ninth and didn’t advance to the final.
“It’s amazing to run in front of a home crowd in a national championship meet,” said White. “All your friends and family, plus the crowd, is amazing. You still have to be mentally prepared though to compete well.”
The Aggie men’s 4x400 relay recently claimed another SEC title as Texas A&M hosted the conference meet two weeks ago. The time of 3:02.35 broke three records previously held by the 2017 Aggie relay crew – meet record (3:02.39), facility record (3:02.80) and school record (3:02.52) – while becoming the fastest collegiate time ever run with four Americans on the squad.
Joining Kerley on the relay are Ilolo Izu, Robert Grant and Devin Dixon. They will attempt to claim a fifth national relay title for the Aggies since 2010. NCAA relay titles were claimed by Texas A&M in 1994, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2017.
The Aggie men have also had a pair of scorers in the 400m four times since 2010 along with three NCAA Champions – Demetrius Pinder (2011), Deon Lendore (2014) and Fred Kerley (2017).
“In talking to Deon Lendore about racing here in a NCAA meet he noted that it doesn’t matter how fast you go out in the 400 for the first 200m, the fans are going to bring you home with all the adrenaline,” said Grant. “I did that during the SEC meet, I went out hard and still finished really well. When you come off that last turn there is a big surge of energy from the fans.”
Grant set a career best of 45.84 in the 400m prelims and placed fourth in the final with a 46.14. In the relay, Grant produced the fastest ever indoor split on the second leg with a 44.61.
“The performance I had during the SEC Championships was a confidence booster,” noted Grant. “To run 45.8 in the open and split 44.6 on the relay gives me a lot of confidence going into the national championship this week. I know I’m capable of scoring big points if I hit on the right day.”
Dixon ran third leg on the NCAA winning relay last season and has occupied the same relay leg for the Aggies this season. He is also racing in the 800m after winning the SEC Indoor title. Dixon’s indoor best of 1:47.37, which improved the facility record at Clemson he set the previous year, ranks fifth among the NCAA Indoor entrants.
“It was exciting to win at the SEC Indoor while running at home with the crowd,” stated Dixon. “It was very motivating to win.
“In the relay people wondered how we would do without Fred Kerley this season and we were able to break multiple records during the SEC meet. It goes to show that teamwork can make some things happen. I was excited to see how everybody ran on the relay, giving every inch they had.”
Jacob Wooten, who placed ninth in the 2016 NCAA Indoor, returns to the national meet as the Aggie school record holder in the pole vault. In winning six of his seven competitions this indoor season, which includes a SEC title, Wooten has vaulted 18-3 and 18-4 ½ to improve upon the 18-2 ½ standard established by Wyatt at last year’s NCAA meet.
“I honestly can't wait, there’s nothing like being at home and having the Aggies cheer for you,” said Wooten. “During the conference meet I got a little too hyped, and under-performed after clearing my opening height. It’s good to have the fans back you up.
“Everyone performed really well during the SEC meet and I think they’ll continue rolling off that momentum. We saw what we could do at conference, and now we’re going into nationals ready to perform better.”
Aggie senior Alison Ondrusek will take her final spins in the weight throw circle at Gilliam this weekend following her silver-medal performance at the SEC Championships. With a career best effort of 69-11 ¾ (21.33) this season, Ondrusek aims to become just the third Texas A&M thrower to score in the women’s weight throw at an NCAA Indoor in joining Meshell Trotter (2000, 2001) and Brea Garrett (2014, 2015).
Newcomers are ready to make an impact on the women’s side as freshmen Sammy Watson (800m) and Tyra Gittens (pentathlon) join a pair of sophomore triple jumpers in Lajarvia Brown and Ciynanon Stevenson.
“Jumping 43 feet in the triple jump has enabled me to help the team this season as well as my confidence,” swaid Brown, who finished fifth in a very talented SEC field. “Moving forward to nationals, I think I’m ready.
“Training for the pentathlon this past fall helped me since I not so focused on one event and worried about that one event. I’m getting stronger for different events, so now when I’m on the runway for the triple jump it’s different.”
Watson led a 20-point output by the Aggies when she won the SEC Indoor 800m over teammate Fray. Gittens improved her career best score in the pentathlon to 4,121 points to finish fifth in the conference meet. Stevenson joined Brown in surpassing 43 feet in the triple jump this season.