Friday, June 21, 2024

College track and field: NSU women’s 4X400 relay team qualifies for NCAA Championships

by Russell Hedges
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By Jonathan Zenk, Northwestern State Assistant Director of Communications; featured photo by Prentice James

LEXINGTON, Kentucky—“They’ve got a lot of speed down there at Northwestern State.”

ESPN+ broadcaster Noah Frary stated what everybody in the Southland Conference and the region already knew.

To cap off the meet, the women’s 4×400 relay team smashed the school and conference record, clocking a 3:29.22 to finish second in its heat and fifth overall to join the men’s 100-relay team at nationals in Eugene, Oregon.

The Lady Demons accomplished the feat on the final day of competition at the NCAA East Regionals on Saturday on the campus of the University of Kentucky.

NSU raced out to a fast start, thanks to Maygan Shaw, leading after the first leg. Vanessa Balde brought it home, fighting back from fourth place to second, solidifying an automatic spot.

“It was a great day,” head coach Mike Heimerman said. “We had to run a fast 4×4 to make it out and those ladies delivered. I don’t know how many non-power 5 schools have run under 3:30.00, but it can’t be many. It took all four lad to run amazing legs and they all did. They deserve to be at nationals and now they are going.

“It was a great and fitting way to end this meet in Kentucky. I am a very proud coach of all of these amazing student-athletes, who I call my kids, my coaches Adam (Pennington) and Lon (Badeaux) and our hard-working athletic trainers Emily (Walker) and Kal (Pajuluoma). It was a total team effort.”

The fifth-place finish is the top spot not occupied by an SEC school.

Three of the members of the relay squad—Shaw, Balde and Sanaria Butler—participated in events previously in the day. They were joined by Tranasia Jones, who also nearly made regionals individually in the 400-meter dash.

The quartet has broken the school record multiple times, but this one was more than three and a half seconds better than its previous best, a 3:32.67 at the Texas Relays.

If NSU had run the previous school best time it recorded at the Texas Relays, it would have finished 14th and missed out on nationals.

Georgia won the event with a time of 3:26.06, which is a facility record. Tennessee (3:26.48) and South Carolina (3:26.73) also finished with a time under 3:27.00.

The NSU 4×400 relay was not the only school record broken Saturday.

While she isn’t making a return trip to nationals individually in her signature event, Butler still announced to everyone she is one the greatest runners in program history.

Even before she reached nationals in the relay, she competed in the 400-meter dash and did not disappoint.

Butler, a native of Port Arthur, Texas, broke her own school and Southland Conference record in the 400-meter dash, clocking a blistering 52.09 to place 14th out of 24 runners.

“Sanaria, who wasn’t feeling well, goes out and runs another school and conference record and missed it by two spots,” Heimerman said. “Those were some amazing times that everybody ran in the field. She runs a second and a half faster than last year and misses it.”

Coming out of lane No. 8 in the second of three heats, she placed fifth in her heat with the top four running a 51.71 or better.

The top three advance to nationals, as well as the next three fastest times.

Thirteen of the 24 competitors ran a personal best, including Butler. Georgia’s Aaliyah Butler clocked a facility record 50.30. Nine of the top 11 times come from runners from the SEC.

By comparison, Sanaria Butler reached the nationals in 2023 by clocking a 53.88 in Jacksonville in the 400-meter dash.

Of the 24 in the field, 13 ran sub-52.00, as Ohio State’s Bryannia Murphy clocked a 51.85 and just missed out, as the top 12 head to Eugene, Oregon, for nationals.

Joining Butler in the 400 was relay teammate Shaw, who clocked a 53.14 to finish 20th in the event.

Balde, another athlete who is going as part of the 4×400 relay team, placed 17th in the women’s 100-meter hurdles, clocking a 13.32.

Florida’s Grace Stark ran a 12.55 in the 100 hurdles to not only come in first but record a facility record as well.

To begin the day, Kaitlyn Washington (167-2) finished 23rd out of 48 competitors in the women’s discus. Fresh off her gold medal at the SLC championships, Shakera Kirk placed 41st with a toss of 154-4.

Florida’s Alida van Daalen set a facility record in the event, tossing a 214-1 to win the discus by more than two meters.

“I thought Kaitlyn had a good competition in a tough field,” Heimerman said. “But give credit to those other women. They put on a show.”

The women’s 4×400 and men’s 4×100 relay teams, as well as Zachaeus Beard (100-meter dash) and Diamante Gumbs (discus) continue their quest for a national championship in Oregon, beginning June 5.

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