May 26, 2010
Marion, Ind. - The success of the program in its first three years of existence is truly remarkable.
Over that brief time span, the Shorter College men's track and field team has made its presence known nationally in the NAIA ranks.
A national champion, numerous All-Americans, athletes continually ranked as some of the best in their respective events - the list of accomplishments has grown to the point where there is no longer room in the office of head coach Scott Byrd to hang the growing number of plaques.
On Thursday, however, the Hawks will start a run toward the one accomplishment that has thus far escaped their grasp - a national team championship.
"They all know what's there," Byrd said about his team as it sets its sights on winning the 2010 NAIA Men's Outdoor Track and Field National Championships being held over a three-day period in Marion, Ind. "They know what it's going to take. On one hand, this is a reward for a great year. But now, it's strictly business for this group.
"The whole thing for us is whether or not we'll be successful enough to win a national championship," he added. "There's no bones about it - we're here to win a national championship."
"We really can do it," senior Nate Scott, one of the members of the Hawks' inaugural team in 2007 and a three-time NAIA All-American 110-meter hurdler, said about this year's squad. "Being in the top-five last year was well-deserved, but we missed out on a couple of opportunities. This year we feel we have a good opportunity to be No. 1 and bring it home."
For some teams, a claim of that magnitude tends to be more rhetorical.
For Shorter, there's little doubt that the Hawks have the means to back up that lofty goal.
Of the 13 athletes who qualified to compete, nine were a part of the team's fifth-place finish in 2009.
For the first time, the Hawks have multiple entries in multiple events, a luxury that could put more than one member of the team on the awards podium.
"Every year it's been a little different because our program is maturing and this is the first year we've had seniors," said Byrd. "The ones we're putting out there are seasoned."
That, the coach points out, has led to more productive practices and meets where both athletes and coaches can concentrate on the key technical aspect of the sport, which is vital when the difference between first place and fifth place may be just a matter of a few hundredths of a second or a fraction of an inch.
"The things I used to worry about I don't any more," Byrd said. "They know when to check in, when they have to run and know how to focus. They are more knowledgeable. They're thinking more about strategy and technique now.
"The relationship [with the coaches] is different," the coach said. "They know the team routine and the drills. Now it's `How do I win the race, coach?' It's the little things that make the difference. The speed is there; now it's how you run it."
The Hawks could set the tone over the first two days if two standouts in the field events can ignite the spark.
Returning to claim his second national high jump championship is junior Montagious Brown, who was the 2008 indoor titleholder and enters this year's national outdoor meet as the No. 1 jumper in the NAIA. His best leap came at the Georgia Tech Invitational two weeks ago when he cleared the bar at 7'1.5" - a mark that tied his personal best effort that he set at last year's outdoor nationals when he settled for runner-up honors.
"He's stronger and faster and in better shape," Byrd said of Brown. "That threw off his approach, so he cut it down to a seven-step approach. That's the difference - he's a more seasoned athlete."
"I'm more of a power jumper now," Brown said. "I felt tired coming from 74 feet and by the time you get to the bar, you don't want to be tired."
The Hawks also have high hopes for sophomore Anthony Taylor in the long jump, the event he dominated at the Mid-South Conference Championships.
When the running heats up on the track, Shorter will be a double threat in both hurdle events - the 110 highs and the 400.
"He's running way ahead of where he was this time last year," Byrd said of Dodson, who is hungry to snap the streak of back-to-back national runner-up finishes in the last two years and win an individual national title. "He is consistently performing well."
"With Terrence, every race he gets better," Byrd said. "There's a very good possibility we could see them take two of the top three spots and we've never had two score in the same event."
Scott and fellow 110-hurdler Howard Dixon could also put a pair of Hawks on the award podium. Scott is ranked as the fourth-best in the nation in the event and Dixon is ranked No. 8.
If pointing in those events didn't make the team enough of a favorite, Shorter has an opportunity to collect points in the 1,500, with Peter Limo entered into the mix and ranked No. 4; the 400, with freshman Randy Dameron also ranked No. 4; and the team's 4x800 relay quartet comprised of Limo, Allen O'Neal, Eliud Ng'etich and Fouad Rtaimate.
Then there's the speed Shorter has in its back pocket, speed that is necessary in four events where the fleetest afoot survive.
Montez Valentine is in the 200 spotlight, and is out to improve on last year's fourth-place finish that earned him All-American laurels.
"He's a team leader who's running great," Byrd said of Valentine. "I think he'll be back on the podium and maybe higher up there."
"Preparation - that's the first and foremost thing I do better now," said Valentine. "I visualize my race more when I warm up. And I've been working on my back 200. I had been slowing down a little, but by working on it more it's really helped out."
Lining up in the blocks for the 100 once again will be yet another All-American sprinter, Shaun Kennedy, who is part of what has been the fastest relay team in the country.
The Hawks' 4x100 foursome, with Dodson running the opening leg, Kennedy taking over for the second 100, Valentine taking the baton on the second exchange and Dameron running the anchor leg, currently holds the top spot in the nation with a sizzling 40.8-second mark.
Ready to make amends for a poor outing in this year's NAIA National Indoor Meet is Shorter's 4x400 relay team consisting of Taylor, Valentine, Scruggs and Dodson.
Said Byrd: "They've got something to prove."
Each Hawk shares an attitude of having something to prove and while there's a possibility Shorter could see additions to the individual national championship total, they all want to share the team crown.
"They're relying on each other now and they all know that," Byrd said. "As the freshmen come in, they begin to feel the same way."
"There was only a small group of us and I was the only hurdler," said Scott. "Now I have a lot of teammates with me. We have more opportunities to score points than you can imagine."
And that leads to the ultimate team goal.
"Everybody here is a state champion or has been a state runner-up in high school," Valentine said. "We know we have to go out there and do what we do and make the most of our opportunities."
"They're more team focused than they are individually focused," Byrd explained. "Every one of them want to win their event, but all of them want that big piece of hardware - that national team championship trophy."
"That's my goal and that's the team goal," said Brown. "I want to win my event but I want the team to win it all. Every point counts.
"We've been talking about it all the time, about how we can take it."