Having had tremendous success in 2012-13 during the Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field seasons, the Firebirds' goal in 2013-14 is simple, yet extremely challenging: get even better.
UDC won last year's inaugural East Coast Conference Indoor Track & Field Championship with a stunning six-point upset of heavily favored Georgian Court. The Firebirds, with just 13 student-athletes on the roster last year, used a complete team effort to pull off this incredible feat. To repeat as champions, fourth-year head coach Alton McKenzie said it will once again require an "all-hands-on-deck" approach.
"Defending our ECC title will be a tough task, but we're up to the challenge. Having experienced seniors and upperclassmen should make us more competitive across the board," the reigning ECC Indoor Coach of the Year said. "With every athlete I coach, I look for them to attain personal bests, or be as close as possible to achieving that goal during the season. If they come up short, it won't be for lack of effort."
One of those experienced seniors is All-American, Shauna-Kay Creary (Accounting – Kingston, Jamaica/St. Andrew HS). With a well-timed personal best long jump of 5.77M at that ECC Championships meet, Creary went on to secure ECC Indoor Track & Field Athlete of the Year and Athlete of the Meet, and earned a bid to compete at the NCAA Championships meet last year in Birmingham, AL. She also concluded her dream season with a personal best and All-American worthy performance of 12.36M in the Triple Jump at the Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Pueblo, CO this past spring.
"I'm looking forward to see her take that experience from last year to make her senior year just as special; though, it will definitely take a lot of hard work to make that happen," McKenzie said.
Another top returning senior who will lead the Firebirds in 2013-14 is Kaydian Jones (Journalism – Kingston, Jamaica/St. Andrew HS). Jones had a tremendous Outdoor season that saw her earn Athlete of the Year honors and run an impressive lead-off leg in the 4x400M relay at the NCAA Championships. During the Indoor Championships meet, Jones and Creary combined for 74 of the team's 151 points.
"Kaydian should have an impact in the Long Jump on the national level, not just within the conference," McKenzie said. "I'm expecting her and Shauna-Kay to lead by example and carry the load as they did last year."
According to McKenzie, even though there are just 12 student-athletes on the roster this year, there is a surprising amount of talent and, yes, depth, because Jones, Creary and sophomore Simone Grant (Health Education – Bronx, NY/Pelham Prep Academy) are extremely versatile athletes.
"Kaydian, Shauna-Kay and Simone are both great sprinters and jumpers at the conference and regional levels. So really, this team's greatest strength is our athletes' ability to compete across multiple events on the track and in the field," McKenzie said. "The workload for these three will be heavy, and how they handle that demand will drive our team's success."
Grant, who was also a part of the 4x400M relay team that competed at the Outdoor National Championships in Pueblo and was an All-Region Triple Jumper during the Indoor season last year, should be ready for a break-out season, McKenzie said.
"I expect her to take advantage of training with two of the best sprinter/jumpers in the region and build on her experience from last year to now make her mark at the national level this year," McKenzie said.
The Firebirds will also benefit from added depth in the middle-distance events as McKenzie brought in a talented freshman, Kay-Tiarra Johnson (Psychology – Hempstead, NY/Hempstead HS).
"I believe she will prove to be a good addition as we continue to develop athletes who can run the 400M and 800M events. Returnees Kimoy Mais (Mass Media – St. Andrew, Jamaica/St. Andrew HS) and Marlena Wright (Journalism – Bronx, NY/Dewitt Clinton HS) also fit that bill," McKenzie said.
McKenzie is also confident that the team will continue to be strong in the 400M and 4x400M relay. At last year's Indoor Championships meet, the Firebirds swept the top three spots in the 400M event and clinched the championship win with a convincing win in the 4x400M relay, leading from start to finish.
"Freshman Charmaine Sweeney (Computer Science – Landover, MD/Largo HS) should be a force across all sprint events and be a good addition to an already strong 400M group. Senior Jerily Benjamin (Health Education – Queens, NY/Phillip Randolph HS) had a good year last year and ended the season with a tremendous leg in the 4x400M relay at the NCAA Championships. She should now be able to carry that over to the open 400M and make her presence felt on an individual basis.
"We will also feature experienced senior sprinters Atiya Amis (Mass Media – Washington, DC/Dunbar HS) and Jasmine Smith (Architecture – Baltimore, MD/Polytechnic HS). Also, sophomore Christina Baker (Forensic Psychology – Kingston, Jamaica/Collegiate Institute for Math & Science) should show significant improvement now that she's gotten a full season of experience under her belt after dealing with injuries coming out of high school. And senior Jeania Bagley (Journalism – Brooklyn, NY/Friendly HS) gives us a presence in the hurdle events, which is something we didn't have last year."
The two major keys to achieving their goals this season, according to McKenzie, are remaining both healthy and hungry for success.
"First and foremost, we must stay healthy to give ourselves the best opportunity to compete at a high level," he said. "Also, we must not rest on our laurels from what we achieved last year. We have to understand that every year and season brings its own unique challenges. We must train as hard as we compete – that's the only way we'll be fully prepared to compete at a high level consistently."
The Firebirds open the 2013-14 Indoor Track & Field season on Saturday as they compete in the Christopher Newport Invitational in Newport News, VA.