Des Moines, Iowa — Behind NCAA titles from Shana Cox (Westbury, N.Y.) and the 4x400-meter relay, the Penn State women's track and field team posted an outstanding fourth-place finish, Saturday at the NCAA Track and Field Championships at Drake University.
Cox can now add two-time NCAA Champion to her resume, as the 11-time NCAA All-American claimed her first-career national title in the 400-meters, before anchoring the 4x400 to its historic victory. Cox's NCAA victory is the second in program history, after Deshaya Williams' discus win in 2003. Her national title is the first by a Penn State athlete in a track event. The 4x400, which included Dominique Blake (Bronx, N.Y.), Aleesha Barber (Decatur, Ga.), Gayle Hunter (Riverside, Calif.) and Cox, is the program's third NCAA gold-medal finish and the first in a relay event. The team's fourth-place finish is also the highest in program history. All told, the Lions recorded a total of 11 All-America finishes on the weekend.
Cox left no room for doubt, coming hard out of the blocks and quickly making her way to the front of the field. Cox, who has remained undefeated throughout the entire outdoor season, then sprinted down the homestretch, fighting off an extremely talented field in a persistent headwind, to win in 50.97 - over three tenths of a second faster than the second-place finisher.
"It's definitely very exciting," said Cox of her first national title. "I've been talking to Deshaya (Williams) a lot, since she knows what its like to be a national champion, and she always has something very inspiring to say. I ran my race a little differently than I usually do today. When you're in a race as good as this, sometimes you have to alter your traditional strategy."
Blake kicked off the 4x400 splitting 52.5 and handing off to Barber a step off South Carolina in the lead. As she's done so many times this season, Barber bolted to the lead on the backstretch. The sophomore fought hard down the homestretch, splitting a scorching 51.9 to hand off in third.
"We knew what we had to do, so we were very prepared for this," said Blake. "It was just a matter of executing and staying confident."
"It's definitely a great win," said Barber. "It's a little bittersweet though because this is the last relay this team will ever get to run together."
Hunter, who had already competed in the long jump and the heptathlon this weekend, took the stick in third and successfully held her ground with a 52.4 split, handing off to Cox with the Tigers of LSU in striking distance.
"I was tired, but not tired enough to not run," said Hunter of her busy weekend. "I just knew I needed to keep us close and get the stick to Shana, and I knew she could bring it home."
Cox would do the rest, sprinting past LSU's Deonna Lawrence on the backstretch and cruising down the finishing straight to seal the deal with a 50.4 split and finish off the school- and Drake Stadium record 3:27.69. The Nittany Lions' record run is the fastest in the NCAA this season, as well as the fifth-best mark in the world this year.
The relay was also Barber's second All-America performance of the day, as the redshirt sophomore posted a fourth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles. Barber clocked 13.18 in a gutsy headwind for her first All-America in the event. Barber is also the first Nittany Lion to earn a top eight finish in the short hurdles.
Hunter, who had finished fifth in the long jump on Thursday, also recorded a top five effort in the heptathlon, scoring 5709 for fifth, just two points off her PR score of 5711. Hunter began the day in style with a leap of 21-00.50 (6.41) in the long jump - the best effort in the field by nearly a foot. Hunter would then post a toss of 110-08 (33.73) in the javelin, before ending the day with a run of 2:19.92 in the 800-meters. Hunter's fifth-place finish was the highest of her career in the event. Hunter was one of three Big Ten athletes to place in the top five, as Liz Roehrig of Minnesota, and Bettie Wade of Michigan took second and third, respectively.
Also earning All-America honors on Saturday were freshman Karlee McQuillen (Johnstown, Pa.) and junior Clarence Smith (Coatesville, Pa.). McQuillen took ninth in the javelin with a toss of 165-11 (50.58), finishing as the top freshman in the country. Smith popped a wind-aided 53-01.50 (16.19) on his second attempt in the triple, earning a trip to the final and his first career All-America certificate with a ninth-place finish.
The NCAA season comes to close, but many of the Lions will continue their seasons at the US Olympic Trials, set for June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Oregon.