In a span of roughly 48 hours last weekend, the women's track and field team set an awe-inspiring 22 new season-best or career-best marks at competitions roughly 800 miles apart. Rice's distance runners traveled to Walnut, Calif., to compete at the Mt. SAC relays, an elite competition held in the ideal weather for distance running: cool and sunny Southern California. The rest of the squad headed to El Paso for ideal sprinting, throwing, jumping and vaulting weather: warm and dry West Texas.
At Mt. SAC, the eight runners set seven season-best records, led by team veteran senior Nicole Mericle, who competed for only the second time this spring. Mericle, who was injured at the start of the outdoor season, did not compete until the Stephen F. Austin Invitational on April 3. After winning the 5,000-meter run and finishing second in the 1,500, Mericle promptly fell ill the next week and ran a 102-degree fever for two days, preventing her from running in the Texas Relays.
Finally healthy on all fronts, Mericle put all she had on the line last weekend at Mt. SAC. Mericle earned a Rice season-best time in the 1,500, finishing in 4:33.20, and a career-best in the 5,000 (16:39.37). Mericle's 5,000 time is second-best among Conference USA competitors this season and the eighth-best time in Rice history.
Considering her recent illness, Mericle's performance is that much more impressive, according to Head Coach Jim Bevan.
"She wasn't quite 100 percent because that [illness] stays in your body for a little while," Bevan said. "She ran an outstanding race for being sick the week before for two days. Absolutely outstanding."
Mericle said she was just happy to be out on the track again after so many setbacks.
"I was happy with [Mt. SAC] because it was my first real weekend of racing," Mericle said.
Although Mericle competed at SFA, it was her first meet of the season. Now that she's back on the track, she has her eyes set on nationals.
"It's been frustrating for sure, so I just was excited to be racing at all. … There's still eight weeks until nationals ,and that's plenty of time to get fit."
While Mericle competed in her final Mt. SAC meet as an Owl, redshirt freshman Lindsay Miller ran the steeplechase in California, shaving 15 seconds from her previous best. Miller's finish of 10:59.44 stands as the fifth-fastest time in C-USA this season.
Bevan attributes Miller's rapid improvement to her increased understand ing of the event, as well as her hard work to improve her fitness after walking onto the Rice team this fall.
"The steeplechase is a unique event because there's a lot of variables with 35 barriers over basically a two-mile race," Bevan said. "Learning how to do it, there's the practice effect. Every time she does it, she's going to improve, and her general fitness keeps improving because she had never really been a true distance runner until she joined our program."
Even though Miller has already dropped 27 seconds off her initial steeplechase time this season, Bevan believes she can go even faster.
"I think she's still got some more improvement in her this year," Bevan said.
Other highlights from Mt. SAC include redshirt freshman Aaren Pastor's season-best time of 4:37.58 in the 1,500 and three season-bests for Rice's 800 meter runners: freshman Kylie Cullinan (2:13.90), junior Sophie Peeters (2:14.53) and junior Keltie John (2:15.11).
Moving southward to El Paso, the rest of the squad posted no fewer than 15 new season records for the Owls. While Rice had success across several disciplines at the University of Texas- El Paso, pole vaulters senior Ari Ince and junior Cleona Oliver especially impressed. Ince broke the four-meter mark, winning the pole vault at 4.06 meters (13' 3.75"), a career-best mark for her. Oliver also set a career-best mark, reaching 3.96 meters (12' 11.75," just shy of 13').
Over the years, Rice has been a leader in its conference in women's pole vault since the inception of the event in college track and field in 2000. However, the Owls have not boasted two 13' vaulters on the squad at the same since 2004, when Ally Baum and Beth Hinshaw (Wiess '04) both broke the 13' threshold in the first meet of the season. If Oliver improves by just one-quarter of an inch before season's end, she and Ari will both have reached the elite levels of college pole vaulting.
Among the throwers, sophomore Sharae Robinson continues to impress, as she took first overall in the discus with a toss of 46.81 meters (153' 7") ahead of junior Brittany Brown's third-place mark of 40.73 meters (133' 7").
Bevan noted that Robinson has demonstrated a fine comprehension of the discus already in her two years at Rice and also has distinguished herself with her competitive spirit.
"Sharae is a great competitor," Bevan said. "She's somebody who, on the day of the meet, she really puts her technique together. … In the hammer, she's learning a new event, but she really, really understands the discus.
"She's extremely competitive when you consider on her own team she's competing with her sister as well as other people."
In the discus alone, Robinson has drastically improved in her time at Rice, throwing 20' farther now than she did when she graduated high school.
In other throwing events, Robinson's sister, senior Tina, finished third overall in the hammer throw at 49.05 meters (160' 11"), just ahead of Sharae at 47.7 meters (156' 6") and Brown's mark of 46.03 meters (151'). Tina especially shone in the shot put, however, earning a season-best of 13.79 meters (45' 3").
Back on the oval, the sprinters and hurdlers also left El Paso with several new season bests. In the 200-meter sprint, senior Sarah Lyons, freshman Simone Martin and sophomore Candace Springer all posted season-bests of 24.34, 24.97 and 25.27, respectively. In the 400-meter dash, Lyons impressed again with another season-best of 55.81 seconds, as did junior Lillian Nwora (56.94) and junior Maya Kirk (1:00.47).
The 4X100-meter sprint relay squad of senior Kimberly Stanford, Martin, Lyons and Springer came together to post a much-improved season-best time of 46.48, down 1.12 seconds since the Texas Relays.
Bevan attributed better hand-offs for the success of the sprint relay.
"They connected better and we're sprinting a little better," Bevan said. "We connected not quite well three times but maybe two-and-a-half times. Still room for improvement but we are making the connection a lot better."
The 100 hurdles also gave the Owls a pair of season-best times, with senior Alex Gibbs finishing in 14.51 and Stanford finishing in 14.67 seconds. To round out the Rice effort at UTEP, Kiri Kendall posted a mark of 5.79 meters (19') in her first meet this season, while Ince improved her mark in the javelin, throwing 45.62 meters (149' 8").
On the whole, Bevan felt his team had a very successful weekend.
"We had a great two days at Mt. SAC and UTEP, and things are starting to head the right direction," Bevan said. "We're starting to get some momentum in the last week of classes and finals."
Hopefully the team can continue that momentum this weekend when they compete in the J. Fred Duckett Twilight Meet held at Holloway Field/Rice Track tomorrow. Field events will occur during the day, but the bulk of the running events will be from 6-9 p.m.