STEPHENVILLE – The return to action for Tarleton track and field has been long, to put it mildly. In fact, the Texans’ outdoor track and field team has had a more extensive layoff from competition than any other intercollegiate athletic team on campus.
May 4, 2019. A date that has been emblazoned in the program’s collective conscious. One that signifies the most recent Lone Star Conference Outdoor Championships and Tarleton’s last outdoor competition as a member LSC and Division II institution.
685 days have passed since the Texans have competed as a whole. That changes on Friday and Saturday when Tarleton commences its 2021 outdoor season at the Wes Kittley ACU Invitational.
Cross country completed an abbreviated spring season from January-February, but the trip to Abilene signifies the first program-wide Division I competition.
“Friday and Saturday for me, it’s going to be like taking a deep breath and exhaling and going, ‘Wow. Here we are again,” head coach Pat Ponder said. “In cross country, I didn’t have that same feeling because it wasn’t cross country season. It wasn’t fall. Now, we’re going to be in spring, in March – where we should be racing in March – we’re going to get that opportunity again.”
The opportunity to compet is not lost on Ponder or his athletes.
Tarleton appeared primed to enjoy one of the best combined indoor and outdoor seasons in program history in 2020. Five USTFCCA All-Americans were headed to Alabama for the NCAA Indoor National Championships. The Texans were fresh off an LSC Indoor Championship meet that saw 21 athletes post top-10 finishes, seven medals obtained, four NCAA provisional marks recorded and three school records broken.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic ground college sports to a standstill. The National Championships were subsequently cancelled as was Tarleton’s outdoor season.
“It was bittersweet,” Ponder said. “I’m not going to lie; I watched the results come in from D-II. Last year, we had a good group of men and women there that I felt like would have been on the podium. And the only thing I brought back from that National meet was a t-shirt. On the [day] we were coming back, it was complete solitude for the first probably three-to-four hours. Kids were stunned, coaches were stunned.”
Excitement on Oscar Frazier Memorial Track was palpable when Ponder and assistant coach Clay Holland held their first official spring practice and intrasquad meets in February. Lessons were learned over the last year that may help Tarleton through its first of four transitional years to the Division I level and Western Athletic Conference.
“It was a good learning lesson for us though, really, because at any point in time, what you think you have can be taken away from you,” Ponder said.
The Texan throwers will do the honors as the first event group to compete at a Division I meet on Friday. Tarleton has athletes entered in the shot put and hammer throw, which are scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. The Texans will then send a full group to Elmer Gray Stadium to conclude the meet on Saturday. Meet results and a full recap will be available at TarletonSports.com.
A foundation of sorts was provided for year one of the Division I journey with the return of four of Tarleton’s 2020 All-Americans: seniors Anterius Brown and Jasmine McQuirter and juniors Brandon McKissick and Mikel Stone.
Brown owns the indoor school record in the 400m (47.24) and he and McKissick helped Tarleton break the indoor 4x400m relay record in 2020 with a time of 3:13.74. McQuirter was ranked seventh in the long jump (6.00m) ahead of the National Championship while Stone was a member of the 4x400m relay time and earned an NCAA provisional mark in the 200m dash (21.66).
“They’ve got to lead by example, and we’re counting on them,” Ponder said. “Any time you can have that group of individuals, with the credentials they have, it’s always going to be a bonus. But their leadership at the meet is going to be imperative.”
Tarleton and its athletes can compete for and win WAC Championships throughout its transition years but are ineligible for NCAA Regional and National Championships. If it were, Ponder said Brown would have a shot at qualifying in the 400m.
“I tell him that one day, we’re going to have a statue out here for him, because he’s been here so long,” Ponder said.
McQuirter competed at the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships in 2019 and has arguably as robust a string of accolades as any athlete on campus.
“What she’s doing right now that you won’t see is her interaction with the freshmen and teaching the freshmen,” Ponder said. “That’s something that is invaluable as a coach. She’s helping when coach Holland is working with the hurdlers or what have you, and there’s Jas working on the blocks, teaching the young ones the proper mechanics.”
What Tarleton may lack in depth is made up for by a clear leader or top performer within each event group.
The rest of Tarleton’s roster is highlighted by athletes at or near the top of the program’s all-time records lists. Three 2020 All-Region honorees are back in in seniors Cornelius Coleman (60m hurdles), Alan Palmer (long jump) and Emily Simon (pentathlon) as are distance runners Kevin Baez and Jenna Brazeal, who medaled at the LSC Indoor Championships.
Palmer broke the indoor record in the long jump last season with a leap of 24′-0.75 and Brazeal set new program bests in the 800m (2:18.20) and 1,000m (3:08.05). Ponder said all five athletes can challenge for outdoor records as can Chandee Bachmeyer in the multis, Jamel Anderson in sprints and Gentrye Munden in the high jump.
Elena Reagan is set for one final tour of duty in Purple and White with the goal of resetting school records in the discus and hammer throw. She placed ninth and set a personal record in the discus (42.34m). Sophomore Oscar Rodriguez was Tarleton’s top performer in the weight throw in 2020 and is expected to lead the throwers on the men’s side.
“They stand out and they’ve earned that from what they’ve done,” Poner said. “They’re just leaders. And not just leaders. They’re competitors, and that’s something you either have or you don’t have. You can’t coach that in somebody. And when they have it, it just stands out like a sore thumb.”
Baez placed 10th at the WAC Cross Country Championships in 25:04 on an 8k course. He became the first athlete in Texan sports history to earn All-WAC honors and his performance demonstrated Tarleton has athletes on par with the conference’s best.
“His work ethic above reproach,” Ponder said. “This kid is a consummate of what he does at practice every day. The other guys, it’s what you hope they fall in step with. When they see what Kevin has accomplished, hopefully it will give them the insight to go, ‘If Kevin can do it, then I can do it.’ They may not do it to the level of Kevin, but they can certainly step up their performance level.”
Tarleton also expects to receive contributions from newcomers within Holland’s event groups and field athletes. The Texans anticipate sending a multitude of underclassmen and transfers to Abilene in jumps, sprints, throws and hurdles.
The Texans’ debut Division I schedule features familiar meets.
Tarleton has competed at ACU and at the Texas Relays (March 24-27) annually since 2016 and returns to the Michael Johnson Invitational (Apr. 16-17) for the first time in four years. Tarleton will again host the Joe Gillespie Invitational on Apr. 22 at Memorial Stadium. Health and safety guidelines set by the WAC and NCAA have forced Ponder and other coaches to limit team entries but the field will likely include old regional rivals, including Dallas Baptist, Texas A&M-Commerce, West Texas A&M and Ranger College.
The Texans’ Division I jump also spawned opportunities for new trips featuring elite competition, such as the UTA Invitational (Apr. 3), North Texas Classic (Apr. 10) and Texas A&M Alumni Muster at E.B. Cushing Stadium (May 1). Track and field will also compete in just the second-ever WAC Championship in Tarleton sports history on May 15 at UTRGV.
“The competition is going to be intense, but the way I set up the schedule, it’ll give us those last 14 days to get our legs back under us and get ready for the conference championship,” Ponder said.”
Success will undertake multiple forms for Tarleton in its inaugural Division I campaign. Ponder set a goal of a top-half team finish at the WAC Championships. Individual personal records and strong academic performance also constitute as accomplishments.
“Since we don’t get to go to the Regional or National Championships, I want as many athletes on the podium as we can possibly get,” he said. “That’ll be the benchmark from that standpoint.”
It’ll be a balancing act of sorts in year one between scoring points at meets and developing underclassmen athletes for the future. Even with one less numeral now beside Tarleton’s NCAA division, Ponder said he and his staff’s philosophy remains the same.
“It’s all about what you do on the practice field to decide where you get to go. And if you do get the opportunity, if you do earn a seat on the bus, you better make the most of it, because the spaces are limited.”