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Southeast's 13 regional qualifiers take aim at NCAA meet
It has already been an impressive season for Southeast Missouri State University's track and field program, with the women recently winning the Ohio Valley Conference outdoor title after also capturing the league's indoor crown.
And Southeast's men were solid as well with second-place finishes in both meets.
Now the Otahkians and Indians will set their sights on individual glory as 13 athletes will take part in this weekend's NCAA Mideast Regional in Baton Rouge, La. Competition will be Friday and Saturday on the campus of Louisiana State University, beginning at noon both days.
The top five finishers in every event from each of the four regionals across the nation qualify for the NCAA championships, plus six more at-large qualifiers in each event will come from the top marks turned in nationally this season.
"It's a good reward for these athletes who have done well during the season," Southeast coach Joey Haines said. "And even though we're in the toughest regional in the country, I think we've got a shot to get some people through."
This is the second year for the regional format. Last year Southeast qualified 11 athletes and none of them made it to nationals, although several turned in strong performances.
Junior Heather Jenkins, a Central High School graduate, stands a strong chance of reaching nationals in the discus as an at-large qualifier even if she doesn't place in the top five at regionals.
Jenkins, ranked 17th nationally in the discus, competed in the national meet as a freshman. She is a regional qualifier in the discus and shot put for the second straight year. She also made the cut in the hammer throw but won't participate in that event this weekend. Jenkins ranks seventh regionally in the discus and 12th in the shot put.
"I'm looking forward to the meet. We have a really tough region," said Jenkins, the school record-holder in all three events. "I should have the rank to make it anyway in the discus, but I hope to get in the top five so I don't have to worry about it."
While Haines said Jenkins is the only Southeast athlete who probably has a shot at qualifying for nationals through the at-large process, he believes several in addition to Jenkins could challenge for top-five finishes.
Freshman Miles Smith is ranked 10th regionally in the 400 meters and he recently ran a sizzling 46.49 seconds at the OVC meet for the third-fastest time in school history.
"I really have high hopes," said Smith, also a regional qualifier in the 200. "The region is stacked, but I really feel like I can make it out if I can improve a few tenths of a second."
Senior Jay Heddell will compete in the discus and shot put for the second straight year. Other men's qualifiers are sophomore Alonzo Nelson in the 400 hurdles and the 1,600 relay team of Nelson, sophomore Chaz Brown, senior Jared Tanz (Perryville High School) and Smith.
On the women's side, qualifiers along with Jenkins are sophomore Brooke Woodruff, who is ranked 12th regionally in the 800; sophomore Lindsay Zeiler in the 1,500; sophomore Michele Jett in the pole vault; and the 400 relay team of sophomore Natasha Fortenberry, freshman Nyisha Porter, junior LaQuita Andrews and sophomore Rose Fulton.
Woodruff and Jett both also qualified last year, although Jett did not compete. Junior Meleisa Greene qualified this year in the long jump but will not participate because of an injury.
"We're taking a real young group and it's a good experience to build on for the future," Haines said. "Heather should do well and I think Miles, Jay, Alonzo and Brooke all have a shot at making it, although it's really going to be tough because the regional is so strong."