By Jim O'Hara
ROME - Don't think for a second that the men and women who make up the Shorter track program are taking the university's transition toward NCAA Division II status in stride.
In fact, the Hawks and Lady Hawks are determined to not just remain in the national spotlight; they're dedicated to reap even more recognition by running down some new paths during the indoor season.
"We feel real good about our indoor transition, especially team-wise," Shorter Director of Track and Field Scott Byrd said as the men's and women's teams make the change from being national champions on the NAIA level to a program that despite missing out on the opportunity to compete in NCAA Division II postseason meets has new and higher goals within reach.
"We have experienced people who decided to stay here, continue to work hard and help bring along what is a very good young team," Byrd said. "We have the leadership that helps with the transition to NCAA and the transition of the team."
"You never want to rebuild. You want to reload."
Indeed, the Hawks and Lady Hawks have already proven that what they do on the track remains a trait that will continue to only get better as they continue to dive into the NCAA water.
Both teams welcome back veterans that played key roles during the 2012 indoor season, one that saw the men fall just short of winning a second straight NAIA indoor championship – the Hawks went on to claim their second straight outdoor national title last year – while the women turned in a fourth-place NAIA indoor finish.
So far this year, Shorter has more than held its own by turning in impressive performances, the most recent at the Gladstein Invitational at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., last weekend where saw senior Tamala Daley, last year's NAIA national indoor triple jump champion, won the event in a field of Division I and II standouts.
Shorter has two more indoor outings ahead – this Monday in Birmingham, Ala., at the Emory Crossplex Invitational and on Feb. 8-9 at the Tiger Paw Invitational in Clemson, S.C. – before the teams begin the postseason competition that is available to them.
On Feb. 15, the Hawks and Lady Hawks head to Marion, Ind., for the National Christian College Athletic Association national indoor championships, then on March 2 hope to take some of the top athletes to the USA Indoor National Championships in Albuquerque, N.M.
"Ultimately, our goal is to win the NCCAA championship," Byrd said, "but before we get to that we will be running against some great teams including some schools that are making the transition to NCAA Division II like we are doing."
"And we really feel like we have four or five athletes who can qualify for the U.S. Indoor nationals," the coach said about the high-profile event. "We are a young team but we've got a lot of opportunities ahead of us."
Just how potent the mixture between experience and youth can be is already being realized.
When the Lady Hawks hit the oval, Daley is one of several veterans who have picked up where she left off last year.
In addition to winning the NAIA Indoor triple jump title last year, the Stone Mountain athlete holds the team indoor record in the event with a leap of 40 feet, 3.75 inches and has the best long jump mark by going 19 feet, 6.75 inches. Last week in Indianapolis, she won the triple jump gold with a 39-7.75 effort.
Junior Lakeisha Spikes of Vero Beach, Fla., who was an NAIA outdoor All-American sprinter, gives the Lady Hawks a threat in the indoor 60 and 200 and, Byrd points out, has qualified for the U.S. Indoors.
Sophomore Ayana Walker of Millen will also see action in the 200 but could also run in the 400 as she holds the school outdoor record in the event, and junior Shea Spicher of Grayson paces the distance runners fresh from having a solid cross country season in which she won the Gulf South Conference individual crown and was seventh in the NCCAA national meet.
Junior Ashley Ballard of Newnan and sophomore Daisy Helm of Peachtree City, who were part of the Lady Hawks' 4x400 relay team a year ago, rounds out some of the returning athletes Shorter boasts, all that are complimented by the addition of some newcomers.
Redshirt sophomore Chelsey Thomas of Locust Grove is part of that new group that has the ability to make some noise right away as she joined the Lady Hawks after transferring from Auburn where she finished tenth in SEC heptathlon and can transition herself to compete in the high jump and 60 hurdles as well.
Expectations are also high for three talented freshmen – Anelise Aldana of Guatemala, where she is Junior National record holder in the long jump and holds Central American record in triple jump; throws specialist Madison Sears of Sewanee; and spinter Alexis Smith from Las Vegas, Nev.
"We know they'll do well. We've just got to get them settled in," said Byrd. "It's a very young team that we're excited about."
The youthful look also prevails on the men's roster, but once again the main weapon for the Hawks is speed, experienced speed.
Coming out of the blocks once again will be senior Kirk Wilson of Phoenix, Ariz., an NAIA Indoor All-American last year and holds the Shorter records in the 60 and 200; redshirt senior Allen Huntley of Atlanta, also an NAIA Indoor All-American; and junior Bradley Moon of Conyers, who along with Wilson and Huntley were part of the Hawks 4x100 national outdoor championship relay team.
However, there's even more speed available.
Sophomore sprinter Travis Benton of Decatur, who sat out last year after becoming at NAIA Indoor All-American in 2011, will be redshirted and run unattached during the season, while freshman Micah Reed of Lawrenceville is also poised to enter Shorter's sprinting picture.
Two seasoned 400 senior standouts will be redshirted this year as five-time All-American Randy Dameron of Atlanta – he holds indoor 400 record and won NAIA national title last year – and senior Malik Fair of Raleigh, N.C., will run on an unattached basis, but the Hawks are far from lacking the legs in the event.
Leading the way in the 400 will be sophomore Cole Rice of Loganville, who was a member of the Hawks' 2012 Indoor 4x400 All-American squad, and freshmen Gregory Roachford Jr. of Covington and Dwight White of Gainesville, Fla., have already turned some heads.
Senior Carlos Perez of Barstow, Calif., gives the team experience in the 800 and earned Indoor All-American honors last year as part of the 4x800 relay quartet.
Two of Shorter's top jumpers will take a redshirt this year, but still will compete as unattached athletes – junior Trebor Holmes of Rockmart, who won the NAIA Indoor long jump championship last year, and senior Sadrac Cherfils of Miami, Fla., an NAIA Indoor All-American in the triple jump a year ago.
That doesn't mean to say the Hawks will be lacking the leapers. Not by a long shot.
Sophomore Kedemah Howard of Stone Mountain has all the tools to make some noise, as will freshman David Johnson of Charlottesville, Va., who was the nation's No. 2-ranked high school triple jumper with a mark of 49-10.25.
"With all those guys we have now, our jumps program has really, really been solidified," Byrd said. "We now feel our jump program is as strong as our sprint program."
Junior Daniel Alexis of Fayetteville returns to serve as the foundation of the Hawks' throwers and will be joined by freshmen Chris Sickafoose of Atlanta and J.T. Peterson of Mobile, Ala., and for the first time Shorter will have someone soaring high as sophomore transfer Stefanos Koufidis of Greece has found a home as Shorter's first-ever pole vaulter after winning the NAIA indoor and outdoor national titles at Culver Stockton College in 2011 before competing indoor last winter at Indiana.
"We think we've got all the right pieces to the puzzle," said Byrd. "It's just a matter of putting them together."