GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A fifth-year engineering student, Florida State’s James Rhoden sat out the 2016 outdoor season to focus on his academics. It was a strange decision, considering the Texas native enjoyed his finest season on the track in 2015, placing fifth at the ACC Outdoor Championships in the 400-meter hurdles and qualifying for the NCAA East Preliminary meet.
The year away from competitive racing clearly hasn’t phased Rhoden, who dropped a lifetime-best time of 51.34 to finish sixth in the 400-meter hurdles Friday at the Pepsi Florida Relays, then backed it up with an outstanding 47.3 split on FSU’s third-place, championship qualifying 4×400 relay (3:10.91).
“James Rhoden was a beast today,” FSU coach Bob Braman said, after watching Rhoden roll up two competitors off the final hurdle for the heat win out of lane 9. “I would have loved to see him in a better lane so that he’d be the chaser, not the target. James is a legitimate contender for a national berth.”
Rhoden’s 4×400 leg lent further credence to Braman’s claim, given his collegiate-best 400-meter time is 50.56.
Facing off against the strongest competition of the season to date, the Seminoles didn’t flinch, posting nine new personal-best performances and three top-three finishes.
Graduate student Kellion Knibb led the way, claiming her first Florida Relays discus title in four career attempts with a winning throw of 59.88 meters (196-5). The NCAA leader edged her teammate and fellow Jamaican Gleneve Grange, who was the runner-up with a personal-best throw of 56.53 (185-5).
“Kellion knows how to win,” Braman said. “She raises her game to the competition and today she did just that.”
One of the biggest surprises of the day came from sophomore Shauna Helps, who sliced nearly a full second off her previous 200-meter best, closing strong for a third-place finish in 23.06. It’s the 10th-fastest collegiate time of the season and ranks No. 8 all-time for the Seminoles.
“Shauna Helps was spectacular,” Braman gushed. “23.06 is a fantastic time anytime, but hitting it this early is really exciting.”
Helps, whose previous best was 23.94 last year at the same meet, relaxed off the curve and walked down three competitors over the final 50 meters, moving from sixth to third from out of lane 8.
“She’s showing some junior-senior level maturity and she’s only a sophomore,” FSU Director of Sprints, Hurdles & Relays Brandon Hon said. “She was ready for the moment and ready for the race. Not having anybody to chase on the outside, she put it together really well.”
Rhoden and Helps were among a number of Seminoles under the guidance of Director of Sprints, Hurdles & Relays Brandon Hon who had big days at Percy Beard Stadium.
“The main thing this early in the year is to see them execute better and take some of our good practice sessions and apply them to race situations,” Hon said of his charges. “I liked the effort, the attitude and a lot of the execution this early in the year. That’s what I was excited about. We’re only going to get better from here.”
Included in that group is sophomore Peta-Gay Williams, who opened up her 2017 outdoor season with a personal-best 13.24 in the 100-meter hurdles. Facing a loaded field at less than 100-percent, she placed 11th and moved to No. 7 on FSU’s all-time list.
“I like her effort and attitude, knowing she’s not sharp yet,” Hon said of Williams. “She’s still a little sore, a little beat up. ‘But let’s go push ourselves against the country’s best.’ I appreciate that she had a good attitude about it and still opened up with a lifetime-best. In a couple of weeks I think you’ll see something special out of her.”
Among other Noles posting new personal-bests were freshman Kyle Fearrington in the 400 (47.62) and Michael Hall in the 1500 (3:47.02). Fearrington also ran the leadoff leg on the 4×400 team which won its heat
“I like the way Kyle Fearrington competed,” Braman said. “He went for broke and was rewarded with a nice PB. You can see him and his fellow 400 teammates getting stronger. Together, I think they’ll be a national qualifier by season’s end in the 4×400.”
Rhoden’s strong leg played no small part in that victory, which included Kenny Lane and Steven Simpkins on the anchor.
“He deserves this,” Hon said of Rhoden. “He’s a great student and a great guy; a fifth-year senior doing what you expect out of a fifth-year senior. He already knows how to put everything together. He just needed a couple of opportunities to show it off.
“He’s having the time of his life right now and there’s a lot more in the tank.”
Among the touted Seminoles in action Saturday are top-10 nationally-ranked Emmanuel Onyia (discus), Austin Droogsma (shot put) and Armani Wallace (triple jump). Grange will also compete in the women’s shot put.
Clarke Cruises To Texas Relays 100 Final
The Florida State men’s short sprinters competed at the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays Friday, hoping to post an NCAA East Preliminary mark in the 4×100 relay and some fast time in the 100-meter dash. The Noles got half of the equation right as Edward Clarke qualified sixth for Saturday’s 3:55 p.m. (ET) 100-meter final in a wind-aided 10.27.
Unfortunately, the Noles will have to wait on a qualifying relay mark as a missed exchange on the final baton pass led to a did not finish result.
In addition to the sprinters, Keniel Grant opened his outdoor season with a sixth-place finish in the long jump (7.35m/24-1.5).