STATEN ISLAND, NY - In what was an exciting East Coast Conference Indoor Track & Field Championship event, the University of the District of Columbia showed its class by improving its placing from the previous championship and finishing 2nd in the 2016 edition of the meet with 96 points.
"As we've done all season, we showed a lot of resilience and fight and came up with big performances on the day, even with some early challenges," head coach Alton McKenzie said.
With a team of just 12 student-athletes, the Firebirds garned six overall victories and set three new meet records. The Firebirds started their march from the first track event of the day.
The 60M Hurdles saw the pair of sophomores Shayna Hodge and Stacy-Ann Rowe make it to the finals. Hodge ran her personal best of 9.46s to finish 3rd in Heat 1 of the prelims. The finals saw her finishing 5th to score the first two points for the Firebirds.
Next up for the Firebirds was the 60M, with four student-athletes entered in the event. The foursome of senior Simone Grant, Rowe, senior Brittany Okon and junior Jasmine Walker would all end up making it back to the finals, with Grant and Rowe winning their heats in times of 8.02s and 7.92s, respectively. In the finals, Grant finished 4th with a time of 7.91s, followed by her teammates, Okon (5th in the same time of 7.91s) and Rowe (6th in 7.92 seconds). Walker rounded out the finalists for the Firebirds, finishing 8th with a time of 8.13s.
Quality Firebird performances were not limited to the track, however, as the UDC also began its campaign for ECC prominence with two competitors in the Long Jump. Freshman standout Saida Burns-Moore finished 4th for the Firebirds, leaping out to 5.04M, which is her season best. Grant returned from her 4th place finish in the 60M to make her mark in the Long Jump as well. Sitting in 2nd entering the final of the Long Jump, she had another tremendous series of jumps, improving with her fourth, fifth and final jump before ultimately leaping out to a new personal best of 5.64M - yet another NCAA Provisional qualifying mark. This mark of 5.64M is the third longest jump in the ECC Championship - the other two marks from former Firebirds at previous Championships.
Grant's Long Jump win started a gold rush for the Firebirds, with Burns-Moore then winning the High Jump with a clearance of 1.60M. Also in the field, sophomore Tajah Franklin would have a huge performance with a big heave on her first throw – a personal best toss of 10.88M. Heading into her final throw, she sat in 2nd place. It would take another personal best on her final throw to pull off the win, and she did just that. Her final throw measured 10.95M, just edging the runner-up who threw 10.93M.
"I must say my most exciting win on the day was Tajah Franklin's on her last throw," McKenzie said. "It's that kind of competitiveness we have to rely on as a group, being such a small unit."
The momentum of wins in the field would carry over to the track as well. The Firebirds had back-to-back wins on the track for two seniors in the long sprints. First up was Marlena Wright, vying for her 4th straight win in the Women's 500M. Running in the last heat, she would run a personal best time of 1:18.60 to establish a new ECC Championship Meet record, sealing her fate as a four-time winner of the Women's 500M.
Wright's teammate, Jerily Benjamin, followed suit in the next event on the track - winning the 400M with an Indoor personal best of 56.91s and also breaking her own ECC Record in the process. Her performance in this event saw her beating the runner-up by over two seconds - one of the most dominant performances on the day.
Despite not picking up another win in the Triple Jump, the Firebirds also garnered valuable points with Grant competing in her third event of the day, finishing 4th and bounding out to 11.02M in her first try in the Triple Jump this season. Burns-Moore finished 3rd with a leap of 11.11M.
Later, the Firebirds' versatility in the sprints would be on further display with the majority of the team entered in the 200M. UDC would have several athletes scoring in the event, with Walker winning her section of the 200M in a season best 26.17s for 6th overall. Rowe was 2nd in that that heat, also running a season best of 26.28s, and was 8th fastest overall.
But the two biggest performances for the Firebirds in what was likely one of the most competitive races of the ECC Championships came from two seniors. Jerily Benjamin ran a season best in the 200M with a time of 25.44s to finish 4th overall and add crucial points to the Firebirds' total. Meanwhile, Grant would go down to the wire in the last section of the 200M, just getting edged for the win. She finished 2nd with a time of 24.98s, just out-leaned by the winner, whose time was 24.94s.
The Firebirds would wrap up their ECC Championship in the final event, the Women's 4x400M. As they have done the previous three ECC Indoor Championships, they closed the show with another impressive performance in that relay. A magnificent lead-off from 400M champion Jerily Benjamin put the Firebirds way out in front. Second leg runner Marlena Wright relinquished some of that lead but kept the Firebirds in the hunt, handing off to third leg runner, Jasmine Walker. Walker would reestablish the lead for the Firebirds, but with Queens College in hot pursuit. Anchor leg runner Simone Grant would receive the baton with a slight advantage, and that lead would not be relinquished. Competing in her fifth event on the day, she would muster all the courage needed to close with a splendid anchor leg, bringing the Firebirds home to victory in a new meet record of 3:58.85.
"I was most impressed with the leadership shown by my seniors competing in their last Indoor ECC Championship. Marlena, Simone and Jerily have led by example all year, and they went out winners in their last Indoor ECC Track & Field Championships, competing in the 4x400M, an event we've always had tremendous success in," McKenzie said. " I must highlight how special all three have been to the UDC Track & Field program, and I can't say enough about how much they've accomplished over the past four years."
Despite not claiming the program's 3rd ECC Indoor Championship in four years, McKenzie said he was very pleased with the effort from this group to place 2nd.
"I look forward to more great things to come from this group throughout this season. We had a great ECC Championship overall as a team, but I do believe there is more great things to come from this group for this season."
Two seniors, Jerily Benjamin and Simone Grant, will compete Sunday at the George Mason Last Chance Meet.