By Matt Green
MARION, Ind. – After years of close calls, the Shorter University women’s track and field program finally has its national championship.
And the Lady Hawks’ national championship moment couldn’t have come in more dramatic fashion.
Sophomore Ayana Walker was part of four national championship performances, junior Lakeisha Spikes had a hand in three and junior Shea Spicher posted a clutch national championship performance in the 3,000 meters as Shorter captured the 2013 NCCAA Women’s Indoor Track and Field National Championship on Saturday in Marion, Ind.
Shorter edged defending NAIA Indoor champ Azusa Pacific by 4.5 points to claim the title. The Lady Hawks scored 149 points when all was said and done, with Azusa mounting 144.5 for its runner-up finish.
“It’s what they needed to get over the hump,” said Scott Byrd, Shorter’s Director of Track and Field, who is also a three-time National Coach of the Year. “The women beat the same Azusa Pacific team that beat them last year. The girls were shocked. It reminded me of the first time the men won [the national championship]. We won that by four points as well and needed some clutch performances at the end to finish it out.”
The title is the first for Shorter’s women, but the fourth overall national championship for Shorter’s track and field program within the last three years – Shorter’s men captured both the NAIA Indoor and Outdoor national crowns in 2011 before repeating as NAIA Outdoor champions last year.
Now, after watching their male counterparts collect hardware regularly over the past couple seasons, Shorter’s women have taken center stage, and rightfully so after what amounted to a dominating performance in Marion.
“You could see that something clicked with the girls when they realized that they could do it,” Byrd said. “They beat some quality D-II teams to win this championship.”
The site of so many close calls for the Lady Hawks over the past three years – Shorter’s women recorded three straight top six finishes in national championship meets on Indiana Wesleyan’s campus in Marion over the past three years – became the scene for their greatest triumph on Saturday.
The national championship effort came on the shoulders of six individual national title performances, and some monster individual acts by Walker, Spikes and Spicher.
Walker and Spikes began their national weekend by serving as members of Shorter’s 4x200 meter relay team, which won the team’s first individual title on Friday by winning the final in an NCCAA record 1:40.7. Walker, Spikes, Alexis Smith and Ashley Ballard won the event by over two seconds and smashed the previous NCCAA record by over seven seconds.
Spikes set the tone for the Lady Hawks on Saturday by winning the 60 meter dash in a time of 7.73.
Walker then stepped into the spotlight, putting together one of the most impressive 90 minutes in program history.
Less than 30 minutes after finishing fifth in the 60 meter final, Walker stepped into the blocks for the 400 meter final and cruised to an individual national championship in NCCAA record time of 57.05. Less than an hour later, Walker toed the line for the 200 meter dash final and proceeded to win another championship, setting yet another NCCAA mark by winning the event in 25.22 seconds.
“I’ve never had an athlete do what Ayana did,” said Byrd. “I don’t know how she did it. We sat down and asked her last week if she really wanted to do this and she told us that she would do whatever it took to help us win. It’s incredible and says so much about the type of athlete and person Ayana is.”
“Lakeisha has filled the role of captain beautifully and leads by example,” Byrd said of Spikes. “She has incredible range and to be able to lead off the 4x200, come back and win the 60 and then extend herself in the 4x400 in unbelievable. That is a tough triple to complete, much less win.”
With the Lady Hawks now toe-to-toe with Azusa Pacific after the 200 final, it was Spicher’s turn to get into the act.
Spicher, who did not enter the 3,000 final as the odds on favorite, put Shorter in the driver’s seat for a team title by crossing the finish line in an NCCAA record time of 10:10.10, narrowly beating the event’s runner-up by .08 seconds to put the Lady Hawks up by 2.5 points over Azusa Pacific with one event remaining.
“Shea’s run reminded me exactly of when Oscar Ogwaro did two years ago when he pulled out the 5,000 meter title that put us over the top,” Byrd said. “We were hoping that Shea could come in third, but we had no idea that she would PR by nearly 20 seconds. It was a dagger. Azusa saw right there that it was over.
“Shea has come so far in just one year and she is the best distance runner we’ve had since [five-time national champion] Justyna Mudy.”
Shorter now needed to, at worst, finish no more than one place behind Azusa in the 4x400 and it would be the national champion.
The Lady Hawks did one better.
Again, anchored by Walker and Spikes, Shorter’s relay team answered the call. This time, Walker, Spikes and Ballard teamed up with Daisy Helm to torch the final field by eight seconds and cross the tape in 3:50.15 – another NCCAA national record.
The relay victory clinched the team title for the Lady Hawks, and while a celebration was in order, most of the women’s team could barely move after the putting forth the physical exertion necessary to accomplish what seemed to be a long shot at the outset of the meet.
“Shea’s performance really gave the 4x400 team the extra boost they needed to find the energy to compete," Byrd said. "This was the first 4x400 team we’ve had win a national championship and that group had run an incredible amount of races.
“It wasn’t their best time, but it was by far their best performance.”
In addition to Shorter’s national championship efforts, Ballard made a statement in the prelims of the 60 meter dash, where the Newnan native qualified for the United States National Team trials with a time of 7.68.
Shorter’s women are certainly happy with their first experience in the NCCAA, but they aren’t satisfied. While Byrd is planning to redshirt several athletes because of the NCAA transition, he knows that he will get the best out of his team once again when the outdoor championships roll around.
“The athletes that don’t redshirt are competitors and know what it takes to win,” the coach said. “We have a great group of women and men, and we are blessed to have such a great group of kids representing Shorter University.
“I am extremely proud of them.”