LEXINGTON, Ky. – Arriving at the Kentucky Track & Field Complex with 33 NCAA Championships qualifying spots on the line over the next three days, the Florida State track & field teams are decidedly more seasoned and talented than they were a year ago at this same juncture. Exactly how that translates in the Seminoles’ quest to head west for the June 7-10 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. will play out over the next three days, beginning Thursday.
The NCAA East Preliminary brings together the top 48 athletes in 16 individual events, and the top 24 relay teams in two others, and competitively pares the field to 12 in each event. Together they join with the top 12 in each event from the NCAA West Preliminary and reconvene at Historic Hayward Field.
“A lot of these kids came to this stage last year,” Florida State coach Bob Braman said. “That’s big. There’s a lot of desire not to be sitting at home [for the NCAA Championships]. You don’t really think about it the whole year, but when you come to the actual qualifying meet, you don’t really want to be sitting at home. That memory, that motivation, that ultra-focus comes back now.”
That’s certainly the case for a trio of sophomores who arrived at the University of North Florida last year as freshmen competing in their first NCAA East Preliminary. Shauna Helps (100 meters), Peta-Gay Williams (100-meter hurdles) and Armani Wallace (triple jump) arrived in Jacksonville with high hopes, which wasn’t enough to carry them through to the NCAA Championships.
“What I remember about the regionals last year is it’s very, very competitive,” said Williams, who advanced from the opening round in Jacksonville with the 14th-best time, but had her season cut short with a 17th-place showing (13.40) in the quarterfinal. “You can’t take anything for granted. This year I’m determined to be one of the best and I’ve worked toward it. If anybody else can do it, I can do it, too.”
Williams is the No. 3 seed overall in her event this year, and a heavy favorite to make her first collegiate championship meet, thanks in no small part to what she learned as a freshman.
“You just have to stay focused and worry about yourself because everybody is good,” she said. “Being a part of the quarterfinals – the last 24 – you just have to focus on yourself. Once you get distracted then it’s over.”
The peculiarities of qualifying from the NCAA East Preliminary in the field events was not something Wallace was prepared for. Each of the 48 jumpers gets three attempts – there are no finals – and the top 12 move on.
“Last year I didn’t make it to nationals because I really didn’t execute when I came to regionals,” said Wallace, who entered the meet as the No. 8 seed but was 16thafter three attempts.
“I came to regionals like I had three extra jumps when in reality, I had three jumps,” Wallace said. “So moving forward now, I’m going in with the mindset that I only have three jumps and I’m going to try and get it on that first jump.”
This time around, Wallace enters as the No. 3 seed overall.
“Now that I’m prepared for it, I have the mindset, ‘I need to go. I can’t wait.’ I think I’ll be fine,” he said.
Helps was a longshot to get out of last year’s East Preliminary in the 100-meter dash and her 11.78 first round time brought her individual season to a halt as she placed 30th, though she was a member of FSU’s qualifying 4×100 relay team.
Arriving as the No. 9 seed with the third-best time (11.26) in FSU history, the Jamaican star is better equipped to navigate two rounds and advance.
“That taught me a lot,” Helps said of last year’s disappointment. “The mistakes I made last year I definitely won’t be making them again this year at this meet. What I took away from last year was just to be more mature and more composed, and definitely be more prepared. Last year I wasn’t mentally prepared or physically. This year I went back to the drawing board so I don’t make those mistakes again.”
The Seminoles are certainly positioned to have a stronger contingent advancing to the championship meet, at least based on seeding. Nine of FSU’s 15 women’s qualifiers are seeded among the 12 and project to move on. Six of 18 men’s qualifiers fall within the top 12.
And while the Noles have 14 first-time NCAA East participants in garnet & gold, including nine of the 15th-ranked women’s team, well over half of those are favored to move on as well.
“We just came out of an extraordinarily competitive, probably the most competitive, ACC meet that I’ve ever been in,” Braman said. “Not only were the quality of performances way up in the ACC, but the competition with teams we were trying to beat and trading punches with the whole three days, was at a really high, intense level.”
The Seminole women finished second, just six points shy of a second consecutive ACC, while the men were third and well within earshot of the top two.
Braman believes the combination of another year of NCAA postseason experience, coupled with three days of ACC title contention, will serve his athletes well.
“That was a perfect set-up for this,” Braman said. “Team-wise, that’s behind us now. There’s no team score. If the disappointment of not winning the team titles is behind them, they’ll be in a good spot, because individually they had to compete their rear ends off…
“The kids that we have are not going to be afraid of the moment. They are much, more hungry than they are afraid. “
Helps readily admits she has a better understanding of the expectations that go with competing on the collegiate championship level, having gone through the 2016 campaign.
“I don’t think I understood how serious it was,” Helps said, reflecting on her freshman NCAA East experience. “I didn’t take it seriously last year at all. I’m very excited because I’m doing two individual events and no relays, so it’s all me.”
Thursday’s action begins at 11:30 a.m. with redshirt freshman Veronika Kanuchova competing in the hammer. The ACC champion and standout from Slovakia is one of seven Noles scheduled to compete at the NCAA East Preliminary for the first time on the opening day of competition.
The SEC Network+ will provide three days of streaming coverage, with Thursday’s action set to air at 9 p.m. and available here http://es.pn/2r6gYzv
Complete recaps at the conclusion of each day will be posted at Seminoles.com, along with photos and a recap on the official Florida State Track & Field Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/FSUTrack/#