NORMAN, Okla. -- After sliding from fifth to tenth in the Big 12 between the indoor and outdoor seasons, the University of Oklahoma men's track and field team has just one goal in mind for 2006: improve. With the departures of two-time national champion DaBryan Blanton and four-time All-American Aldwyn Sappleton, OU will look to a talented collection of sophomores and the consistent improvement of its juniors and seniors to accomplish that feat and usher in the new era of Sooner track and field.
The women's team, 11th and 12th, respectively, in indoor and outdoor conference results, have only room for improvement. Although they lose star sprinter Kerri-Ann Mitchell, the competitive fire of juniors Jessica Eldridge and Yolanda Goff will help team's cause. The addition of several talented freshmen also provides more depth than the Sooners have enjoyed in previous seasons.
For the first time in its history, though, Oklahoma begins a season with a head coach who has won a national championship in the sport. Martin Smith comes to Oklahoma after a distinguished 26-year career on the Division I level which included stops at Virginia, Wisconsin and Oregon. Smith coached the Virginia women's indoor team to a national championship in 1983 and later added five more national titles to his résumé in men's and women's cross country.
"There are two things we, as a coaching staff, must accomplish for this program to follow the path towards being a successful track and field program," says Smith. "First, from a coaching/teaching perspective, we must do an outstanding job with our returning athletes to improve the existing team, which already has much talent. Second, we must focus on building for the future."
Smith added to his staff a team of nationally recognized assistant coaches: Dana Boone, whose last two stops – LSU and Texas – are the previous two women's national champions; Jeremy Fischer, the NCAA's West Region Jumps/Multi Events Coach of the Year from Big West champion Cal State Northridge; Mark Napier, who developed one of the nation's leading field events programs at Wisconsin; and Jeff Perkins, also from Cal State Northridge.
A strong group of sophomores highlight this year's crop of sprinters led by Marcus Pugh, who returns as the team's fastest athlete. As a freshman, Pugh ran NCAA provisional times in the indoor 60 (6.70) and indoor 200 (21.20) and enters his sophomore season faster and stronger than ever.
"The men's sprint group has a lot of talent. We're very young," says assistant coach Jeff Perkins. "We are made up of sophomores and junior college-transfer Ronnie Pines, from whom I expect to see quite a contribution. I also expect a lot out of Marcus Pugh. He is the most talented individual in this group. Marcus should be able to rebound from last year's injuries to run well in the 100 and 200 and be a force anchoring our 4x100 relay."
Senior Josh Scott provides the leadership for the sprinters. Scott anchored the Big 12's fourth-place outdoor 4x100-meter relay team and was on the fringe of making finals in the 100 and 200 at both the indoor and outdoor conference meets.
"Josh Scott will have a big impact this year. He is a quiet leader who will set the example for this group. We are looking for him to be a solid contributor on the relays and in the 200."
Sophomores Daniel Bridges, Brayon Brown and Chason Lane will also bolster the lineup. Brown will be a force in the Big 12 in the 800 meters.
"Brayon Brown is an athlete who should have been a national qualifier last year if not for injuries. Brayon is a tremendous competitior with unlimited abilities who will help us is many places, including the 4x400 relay.
"Frankie Wright, a transfer from Barton County Community College, will help us in the 400 as well as the jumps and, along with Brayon, will help our relay. I expect our 4x400 will be much improved this year."
"The women's sprint core will definitely be improved from a year ago," says assistant coach Dana Boone. "Yolanda Goff is our returning scorer and our leader. She is a young woman with a lot of talent and much of it is still untapped within her. I'm looking forward to having her compete and be one of the top three athletes in the Big 12."
Goff, who posted the women's best 100 and 200 times last season is back. Her 11.53 100 and 23.72 200 rank as the 27th and 39th best times, respectively, of all returning Division I collegians.
"For our quarter-milers, we return Terrika Warren and Tijahnni Newton. I think their training has been very promising and expect them to be much improved from last season. They are both capable of making the Big 12 final."
Warren provides leadership for the group. She posted the team's fastest 400 last season and will fill a role on the 4x400 and distance medley relays. Like Warren, sophomore 400-meter sprinter Tijahnni Newton will be called upon impact the 4x400 relay.
"Tijahnni battled injuries last year but is back and training extremely well. She should be a conference scorer this year."
Junior Larica Urbina and sophomore Ashley Harris should both improve on their results in the 100 and 200 as well as maintain their roles with the team's 4x100 relay which finished 14th at the national championships.
"Last year, the 4x100 relay team was a national qualifier. I feel like they should return and have the goal of competing in the finals. We don't want to just go; we want to make the finals. I think, with a lot of hard work, that is an attainable goal."
Junior Nicola Maye adds to the group's depth. Maye will focus on the 800 and continue to fill a role on the team's school-record distance medley relay squad.
"We are looking for Nicola to return to the form that made her so promising when she came in three years ago. She should definitely be a finalist at the Big 12 meet."
The group adds freshman Leslie Cole and transfer Davene Findlay.
"I also think we have a group of young sprinters that show promise, especially freshman Leslie Cole. Leslie is very strong and athletic with a good work ethic. She has a tremendous amount of untapped ability. I look for her to be a sleeper this year."
Cole was the Oklahoma state (class 4A) runner-up in the 200 to her Idabel High School teammate. Her personal best time of 24.52 ranked as third best in the state in 2005. She also anchored Idabel's state championship 4x100 and 4x200 relay teams and may fill the opening on OU's sprint relays left by the graduated Kerri-Ann Mitchell.
Findlay comes to OU after two years at Southwest Christian in Fort Worth, Texas. Findlay specialized in the 100 and 100 hurdles, but also ran on the team's 4x100 relay which beat OU's in a meet last season.
Freshman Ashley Harvey may also see time with this group as an 800-meter runner.
"The future of the women's sprint/hurdles group at Oklahoma is one of promise.\"
It would be unnecessary to say the men's hurdlers have vast experience entering 2006. Three seniors – Tony Francis, Kennan Johnson and Jason Stanley – make up the squad.
"Our hurdlers are very mature," says Perkins. "I expect Tony Francis and Jason Stanley to do very well this year. Jason has no indoor eligibility left, but he should be a force at the Big 12 outdoor meet.
Last year, Francis posted a 60-meter hurdles provisional mark (7.88) during the indoor season and backed that up with a regional qualifying time (14.12) in the 110-meter hurdles during the outdoor schedule.
Stanley, who has suffered through injuries his entire collegiate career, is undeterred to make his senior season one for the record books. The Florida native holds the indoor 60-meter hurdles school record (7.79) and will have a chance to own the outdoor 110 record before his departure.
"There's a lot to look forward to. It's just a matter of putting it all together at the right time at our conference meets."
With junior Melissa Shipley on the sidelines this year while recovering from ankle surgery, the Sooners will look to two freshmen to carry the team in the hurdles events.
"Obviously, the women's hurdlers are very limited this season," says Boone. "However, it's two very athletic freshmen they are capable of doing good things in the future.
"Davene Findlay should help us here as well."
Dallas' Ashley Harvey will be thrown into the fire early. Harvey was a two-time district runner-up (second only to her Skyline High School teammate) in the 300 hurdles and two-time district champion in the 800.
Everyone will have their eye on OU's distance runners this season, and with good reason. New head coach Martin Smith, who comes from a distance-coaching background and has led four cross country teams to national championships, should provide a boost to the group's training and performance.
"The distance group, I think, impressed themselves during the cross country season," says Smith. "They showed exceptional improvement in training and will continue to improve as much as they believe they can."
Junior Jason Coleman highlights this group. Coleman enters the spring rested after redshirting during the cross country season. Hussein, who owns school indoor records in the 1000 (2:24.93) and mile (4:04.64), could add his name to the outdoor record books in 2006.
Senior Blake Culp will continue his traditional role as the team's steeplechaser. Though only 15th in conference last season, Culp made huge strides in performance during the cross country season and should continue the trend through the winter.
OU is counting on sophomores Jason Penland and Tyler Schmiedeberg to help the team's success. Schmiedeberg should improve on his ninth- and 14th-place finishes in the 10,000 and 5,000, respectively, at the Big 12 Championships. Penland suffered an injury that ended his cross country season after just one race.
Juniors Jessica Eldridge and Catherine Odell lead a talented group of distance runners in 2006.
"I'm excited for the opportunity to coach Jessica, who is an outstanding athlete, and Catherine, who excelled in the latter portion of the season last year," says Smith. "They should return to the national championships again this season."
Eldridge, who posted regional qualifying marks in three events last season, will once again make a run at the school record and a national title in the 1500 meters. Odell should improve on an impressive sophomore season that also saw her qualify for the national championships in the 1500. The duo will have an extra advantage after redshirting during the cross country season in order to adapt to a new training program.
Highly touted freshmen Brooke Edsall and Ashley Williams will also help out the Sooners. Edsall and Williams each won nine state titles during their respective high school careers. Edsall won two state titles in both the 1600 and 3200 and one in the 800. She also owns the Oklahoma state meet (class A) record in the 3200. Williams won the indoor 3200 title four straight years and outdoor 3200 title twice. She holds the Arkansas state meet (class 5A) record in both events.
Juniors Aja Clark and Kristi Cook also return to add experience to this group.
With Eldridge, Odell and sprinters Nicola Maye and Terrika Warren all back, the team's school-record setting distance medley relay squad remains intact.
Men's Horizontal Jumpers
With the exception of senior Jason Baird, Oklahoma's long and triple jumpers return in force in 2006. They include: sophomores Tydree Lewis, DePree Roquemore and junior college-transfer Frankie Wright.
"Jason will go on his Latter Day Saints calling this year and, sadly, will not be around," says assistant coach Jeremy Fischer. "I look for Tydree and DePree to step up in his absence and score in the long jump at the Big 12 indoor and outdoor meets this year."
Lewis had a stellar freshman season in the triple jump as a he posted the second-best jump in school history (50-4.5) and placed fourth in the conference meet.
Wright will also be one to watch. At the NJCAA National Championships, Wright placed second in the long jump (24-11.75) while also helping his team to a 4x100-meter relay national title.
"Frankie comes in this year and can immediately be a Big 12 scorer in the long jump and, possibly, a national qualifier.
"In the triple jump, Tydree is certainly in the upper echelon of the Big 12 and could be a national qualifier. Frankie is also a guy that can jump 50-plus. We want both to be national qualifiers this year. Depree is very talented and, I think, can score in the conference meet. He's just very new to the triple jump."
Women's Horizontal Jumpers
Led by senior Lucretia Rimmer and junior transfer Toni Smith, the Sooners' horizontal jumpers should provide their share of thrills.
"Lucretia is very talented," says assistant coach Jeremy Fischer. "I'm disappointed I only get one year with her. She's someone I expect to qualify for indoor and outdoor nationals."
Rimmer excelled as a freshman and sophomore, posting two of the school's five best triple jumps all-time, but had a down year as a junior while struggling with injuries and looks to find her stride again this season.
"Transfer Toni Smith is one to keep an eye on. She is one of the top jumpers in the nation. Unfortunately, last season, she was hurt. I expect her to come in and be an All-American and in the top three in conference in both jumps."
Smith followed Coach Fischer from Cal State Northridge. She had season best jumps of 20-10.25 and 43-1 in the long jump and triple jump, respectively.
Men's High Jumpers
Junior Jon McMillian leads Oklahoma's high jumpers in 2006. McMillian looks to improve on a season that saw him place 13th at the NCAA Indoor National Championships.
"Our three high jumpers, I believe, can definitely all score at the conference meets," says Fischer. "Jon was 13th at the NCAA indoors and we're looking for him to be an All-American this year. We're in the toughest high-jumping conference in the country, so we expect him to be in the top three or four at Big 12s and nationals. He's a guy who could possibly be a national champion before he leaves OU – he's that talented."
Sophomore Shea Shelby, who jumped 6-8 as a true freshman, should help OU score points at the conference meet. Sophomore Tyler Hembree, the 2003 Oklahoma class 2A state champ, will see his first action as a Sooner.
"Tyler and Shea are going to be great conference competitors. We expect them to score points at the Big 12 meets and qualify for regionals. I would definitely like to see all three high jumpers consistently over seven feet. That would be a good goal for this group."
Women's High Jumpers
Senior Myria Houlihan leads the women's most inexperienced group – the high jumpers. Though Houlihan placed eighth in conference with a personal record soar of 5-7, she commands a squad of rookies in 2006.
"Myria returns after scoring in the Big 12 meet last year," says Fischer. "Hopefully, we'll improve on her placing and get her in the top five in conference."
Joining them will be redshirt freshmen Alaina Richey and Jaymi Shull and true freshman Katherine Johnson.
"We've got a freshman, Katherine Johnson, who jumped 5-7 last year that we would like move into scoring position this year. Alaina and Jaymi will keep developing and be scorers before they are done. They add good depth to a program that is headed in the right direction."
Richey, a Claremore native, placed fourth in state in the high jump both her junior and senior seasons. As a senior in 2004, her 5-2 jump ranked as 14th best in the state among all classes.
Similarly, Shull placed fifth twice, as a junior and senior, in state and was runner-up as a sophomore.
Johnson comes from Rochester Hills, Mich., as a two-time state champion in the high jump. Johnson reached 5-7 in two appearances, matching the state meet record.
Men's Pole Vault
Junior Scott Martin heads into the season ready to repeat as an All-American pole vaulter. Martin turned heads during last year's indoor season when he vaulted over 18 feet. He proved the feat was no fluke when he posted the Sooners' best mark again during the outdoor season.
"I believe we have one of the top three vaulting groups in the country," says assistant coach Mark Napier. "I think this will be, based on potential, OU's most exciting event this year.
Martin will be joined by sophomore Chip Heuser who missed last season due to injury.
Heuser is a former junior national champion and holds the Kentucky state high school record. His personal best vault reached 17-0.75 when he finished seventh, the top American, at the 2004 IAAF World Junior Track and Field Championships.
"This is also a very young group, whose training has been amazing so far. They are way ahead of where I thought they could be."
Women's Pole Vault
Senior Jennifer Plank returns after a successful junior season that saw her place sixth in conference during the indoor season and ninth during the outdoor. Plank won't rest on laurels, however, as she becomes the squad's leader in 2006.
"The women will be led by Jennifer, who is a returning Big 12 scorer," says assistant coach Mark Napier. "She'll be leading the charges this year and I except big things from her."
Joining Plank are three Oklahomans – sophomore Lindsey Harris and freshmen Jessica Brown and Joan Brown.
"I expect Lindsey Harris to come in and help out immediately. We also have two outstanding recruits – Jessica and Joan – who were No. 1 and 2 in the state last year."
Harris, a Shawnee native, sat out last season after transferring from South Florida where she redshirted as a freshman. As a high school senior, Harris won the state (class 4A) championship in both the pole vault (10-6) and long jump (17-6).
Jessica and Joan Brown, twin sisters from Fox High School, dominated the high school ranks in 2005. The two placed first and second, with Jessica being awarded the title, in the class A state championships after clearing 11-0, a mark that would have matched or beaten champions in all other classes except 5A. The two also ran the 100-meter hurdles at the state meet, finishing third (Joan) and fourth (Jessica). During the summer, they shared the pole vault title at Great Southwest Classic as both cleared 11-6.
Junior Kevin Bookout will once again compete for a national shot put title after the men's basketball season ends in March. Bookout placed seventh with a personal best throw (61-9.50) at last year's NCAAs to earn his second career All-America honor.
"Everyone's excited about the return of Kevin, especially now that he is healthy," says Napier. "He'll continue to do great things and help us build our shot put and discus program.
Cousin Josh Bookout and fellow sophomore Evan Winters should also yield positive results for the Sooners this year.
"Josh and Evan are beginners in terms of age and training. They've been spending more time with the hammer and the weight – events in which they have potential to be very good. We may redshirt both, though, to give them an extra year of eligibility."
The team's javelin specialists, juniors Chase Bridgforth and Cale Drumright, return in 2006.
"Cale is a returning conference meet scorer and will continue to improve," says Napier. "Both he and Chase have the potential to be the best in the conference. They have been exceptional in fall training."
Drumright finished seventh in the Big 12 last season after adding 12-feet, two-inches to his personal record between his freshman and sophomore years. Bridgforth threw a season best 178-6 at the Texas Relays and placed 11th in the Big 12 last season.
Junior Jessica Pekah, last season's top performer, is the lone returnee in this category. Pekah will face stiff competition, however, for the No. 1 spot from freshman Taylor Scott.
"The women will be moving toward hammer and weight throws this year – two events Oklahoma has never established," says Napier. "Jessica's an incredible hammer and weight thrower, but time is running out for her. She will also compete in discus, an event she was on the verge of scoring in at conference last season."
Scott, a Norman native and sister of OU sprinter Josh Scott, was a two-time Oklahoma class 6A state discus champion at Midwest City High School whose winning throw as a junior traveled nearly nine feet further than the runner-up's. As a senior, she also placed third in the shot put.
"Taylor is a nice addition and will most likely focus on the discus. She has the potential to do great things."
Men's Combined Events
Sophomore Tony Rayburn and junior David Wright take the place of the graduated Dan Strong in combined events. Rayburn was impressive in limited action last season and should put together some quality performances. Wright makes the transition from being a full-time hurdler to competing in the combined events.
"Tony and David are very young in terms of training age, but both are extremely talented," says Napier. "They haven't been noticed because David is a former hurdler who has made a fabulous transition to the multis and Tony is coming off injuries. I hope to get both of them to nationals this year – they are that good."
Women's Combined Events
Freshman Amy Backel comes highly touted from Pennsylvania for both her athleticism and academic prowess. Though only competing in the heptathlon twice in her prep career, she has a personal record of 4,429 points – which would be good enough for eighth on OU's all-time list.
"Amy is a great all-around athlete," says Fischer. "She is specifically good as a shot putter, javelin thrower and high jumper. So it will be interesting to see how we use her in the conference meet."
Freshman Kathryn Tillery comes in as a very talented athlete. Tillery placed fourth in the long jump a t the Oklahoma State High School (class 6A) Championships with a 16-11.75 leap last year.
"Katie is a developmental project who may be redshirted this season. She needs to learn the events but, hopefully, she'll be a scorer in the conference meet by next year."