$7.2 Million Complex Completed in September
By Scarlett Fox
The term “blessing in disguise” is one that can be applied to the challenges the Ole Miss track and field program has faced these past two-and-a-half years.
After announcing its closing in April 2014 due to cavities discovered under the track surface, the Ole Miss Track and Field Complex has now reopened, and is entering into a new era. With a new coaching staff that has concluded its first year with record-shattering team and individual performances, there was much to be recognized at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 9 in honor of the $7.2 million renovations to the facility.
“We have, really, a renewed spirit around our track and field program,” said Athletics Director Ross Bjork at the ceremony.
Those are the perfect words to describe the momentum that has been generated by a team returning from a historic year under the direction of head coach Connie Price-Smith, who also led the United States women to a record-setting showing as their head coach at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Beginning in the fall of 2014, the men’s cross country team won its first ever NCAA South Region title, followed by its first two appearances at the NCAA Cross Country Championship in 2014 and 2015. On the women’s side, the team walked away from the 2015 SEC Championship with a fifth-place finish that tied them for the second-best in program history.
If cross country was not a big enough indicator of the upward direction the program was taking, the men’s distance medley team won three straight SEC indoor titles from 2014-16. Last season, Ole Miss tied for its highest SEC men’s indoor finish in school history (third) and the Rebels’ six total indoor All-Americans tied the school record. This was all capped by senior Ryan Walling winning the Cliff Harper trophy for scoring the most points at the conference meet.
It was more of the same during the outdoor season. The men tied for their second-best SEC outdoor finish in school history (fifth) last year. The women earned their second ever top-25 NCAA outdoor team finish (T-22nd) and helped the Rebels walk away with a school-record total of 13 All-Americans combining the men and women.
Since following Price-Smith from Southern Illinois University to Ole Miss, Raven Saunders has led the charge for the women. Along with claiming a title in the shot put at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, she also won the SEC Commissioner’s trophy for scoring the most points at the outdoor conference meet, broke the all-time NCAA indoor and outdoor records in the shot put and punched her ticket to Rio along with volunteer assistant coach Gwen Berry, who competed in the hammer throw.
“After last season where it was kind of a transition period, everyone was kind of, OK, we’re going to see how it works. But now I feel like all of my teammates, and even myself included, are so much more motivated to be better as athletes,” said Saunders at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Along with a brand new throwing area at the south end of the complex and the addition of a Daktronics videoboard that measures 37 feet, 6 inches by 26 feet, 8 inches, the track itself also has a top-of-the-line surface (Beynon Sports Surfaces 2000 full pour polyurethane running surface with hobart texture) featured at many of the best NCAA programs and Olympic-level tracks around the country.
“I think that it’s done a lot to bring the team together already,” said coordinator of operations Sasha Leeth.
Price-Smith also expressed her excitement, not only about the convenience of the new track, but the ability to host the first Ole Miss home meet since the 2014 spring season. With the first home meet dates set for March 24-25, fans can expect to be able to watch college track and field at its best.
“They haven’t gotten to see a track meet here in a while, so I think it’s going to be exciting,” said Price-Smith. “The teams coming in will be good quality, so I think it’s going to be a great meet.”
Fans can also look forward to a second home meet to be held May 6, just before the SEC Outdoor Championships. It will be a special weekend when the team will honor its seniors for their hard work and dedication to the program.