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Smith, two freshmen earn conference's top honors
A Southeast Missouri State veteran and two Redhawks' rookies were honored by the Ohio Valley Conference Wednesday as the league announced its six postseason indoor track and field awards.
Junior Miles Smith, already a world champion, repeated as male track athlete of the year, while Whitney Thomas and Chris Williams received female and male freshmen of the year accolades, respectively.
"All three are very deserving," said Southeast coach Joey Haines, whose teams will compete in this weekend's OVC indoor meet in Nashville, Tenn.
Smith, a product of Riverview Gardens High School in St. Louis County, holds the OVC's top times in the 200- and 400-meter runs this season with marks of 21.21 and 46.67 seconds. He has already provisionally qualified for the NCAA nationals in both events.
"Miles is having another very good year," Haines said.
With all that Smith has already accomplished -- last year he was fifth at the NCAA outdoor nationals, sixth at the U.S. championships and earned a gold medal as a member of the U.S. 1,600-meter relay team that placed first at the world championships in Finland -- gaining another OVC honor would seem fairly trivial.
But Smith doesn't see it that way.
"It's still an honor," he said. "To come back and do the same thing, plus more ... I'm better than I was last year at this point. My times are better."
Smith will compete in four events at the OVC indoor meet. He will defend his title in the 400, anchor the defending champion mile relay team, and also run in the 200 and 55.
"I want to sweep all four and help the team win," he said. "It's all about the team, that's why I'm running so many events."
Thomas, a graduate of Hazelwood Central High School in St. Louis County, ranks among the league's best in several categories this year.
She holds the top spot in the 55 hurdles (8.20) and the 60 hurdles (8.74), while ranking 11th in the 200 (26.04).
"We had a lot of high hopes for Whitney coming to Southeast and she has performed very well so far," Haines said.
Said Thomas: "I think I'm doing pretty good, considering I'm a freshman. It's exciting, to win freshman of the year."
Thomas is not the first member of her family to excel in track and field at Southeast. Her father, Rob Thomas, is a former All-American and national champion from the early 1980s who in 2004 was inducted into the university's athletic hall of fame.
Haines also coached Rob Thomas at Southeast, and when it came time for Whitney to choose a college, she said she received plenty of fatherly advice.
"At first I wanted to look at some other schools, but my dad said coach Haines is a really good coach," said Thomas, a state champion in high school. "Hopefully, one day, I'll get in the hall of fame like he did."
As for her more immediate goals, Thomas hopes to win the 55 hurdles title this weekend while helping Southeast's women capture their third straight conference indoor championship, and their sixth consecutive league crown overall.
"My main goal is to win, drop my time, hopefully break the school record and help the team win," she said.
Williams, from Fort Zumwalt West High School in O'Fallon, Mo., holds the OVC's second-best time in the 400 (48.67) while ranking third in the 200 (21.82). He is also a member of Southeast's mile relay team that has the league's top time (3:10.89).
"Chris didn't place real high at the [high school] state meet because he was run to death," Haines said. "When we saw him, it was kind of like Miles. We knew he was a lot better than his times. He's going to be real good."
Williams said he was surprised to be named freshman of the year, especially because his roommate, Bilal Hameed -- who will be among the favorites in the triple jump at the OVC meet -- has also had an impressive rookie campaign.
"We help each other a lot, and I honestly thought he would get it," Williams said. "It's a big honor."
Said Haines: "We have two outstanding freshmen, probably the best two in the conference. Bilal was in the running and also could have won it, but Chris is up there in several events."
Williams said Smith is one of the reasons he came to Southeast -- and the world champion hasn't disappointed the rookie.
"Coach Haines talked to me [in high school], and I'd heard a lot about SEMO mainly because of Miles. You could say I'm here because of Miles," Williams said. "I'm surprised I've done this well, but part of it is because of Miles. He's really helped me. We've gotten close."
Added Smith: "Chris has a lot of potential that he hasn't even tapped. I want to see him reach it."
Williams will run in the same four events as Smith this weekend, so he knows it will be difficult to place first individually, but he would love some high finishes -- and a title with the mile relay.
"Hopefully we can win that, and I can help the team win the championship," he said.
Other OVC individual awards went to Eastern Kentucky's Lakisha Brooks (female track athlete of the year), Austin Peay's Sherlonda Johnson (female field athlete of the year) and Eastern Illinois' Obe Eruteya (male field athlete of the year).