Alabama Track and Field Wants to Tap into Potential Even More

Alabama Athletics

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If there was one race that typified how the Alabama track season went last year, it was the women’s 4x400-meter relay at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in June.

Alabama knew it had a strong team, both for the event and meet, only on the backstretch of the third leg there was the kind of pileup that one would be more likely to see at Talladega Superspeedway. It caused Mauricia Prieto to come to almost a complete stop, swerving to avoid a stumbling runner just in front of her.

She, along with Takyera Roberson, Katie Funcheon and Natassha McDonald, still managed to finish fifth – which under the circumstances was pretty remarkable. Yet it was still disappointing.

“Oh my gosh,” said Roberson, who simply goes by “T” among friends. “We ran 3:27 at nationals and we could have run 3:25 if it wasn’t for a little incident.

“But the 4x400, it’s a senior group, all of us are seniors – me, Katie, Natassha, D’Jai Baker – well, Tamara Clark is a junior, but the group that we had last year is all coming back except for Mauricia Prieto. We all just feel like this is the year.”

The sentiment is similar throughout both the Crimson Tide men’s and women’s teams, and with good reason.

The men took 10 at the same meet, while the women’s placed seventh. It marked the first time since 1986 that both Alabama teams finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the same year.

It followed similar showing at the NCAA Indoor Championships, where the women were seventh and the men eighth.

At the SEC championships, the men and women both came in fifth at the outdoor meet, but they were third and fourth, respectively, at the indoors. It was the first time Alabama placed in the top four together since 1986.

"A lot of things didn't go our way,” Waters said at the end of last season. “There were a lot of things we had to overcome.”

Despite that, Alabama and Florida were the only two schools to finish in the top-10 at both the indoors and outdoors with both the men and the women in 2018-19.

It also came on the heels of the Alabama men receiving the 2018 Program of the Year Award, presented annually to the cross country and track & field program with the best combined finishes at the three major NCAA meets. The Crimson Tide earned the honor following its fifth-place finish at the NCAA outdoor meet, a ninth-place showing at the indoor championships and a 14th-place result at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.

In addition to program, momentum. another strong cause for optimism stems from how Alabama has developed a strong ability to score points in nearly every event. While some schools are known for certain aspects of their track-and-field teams, whether it be sprints, relays or whatever, having balance and depth has always been a priority for Waters – even though he came up the coaching ranks primarily known for his distance runners.

“It’s interesting this year that we have a transfer from Northern Arizona who came our team,” he said. “That’s one of our biggest rivals, one of the teams that we always have to beat. Getting to hear what they think about Alabama, and what we think about Northern Arizona was an interesting conversation to have. They have a great tradition and they get to train in altitude.”

Obviously, the more points that can be scored in various events, the better the opportunity to move up the standings.

But it also helps create more of a team feel when at its core track is primarily a bunch of individual events. Like with swimming, building camaraderie is anything but a given.

“I feel like the culture is very close-knit, that we’re all coming together,” junior pole vaulter Jake Spotswood said. “Everyone’s caring about one another, we’re all on the track at the same times. People are caring what’s going on in other events. I feel like it’s kind of coming together and that it will definitely help us during the championships.

“Everybody kind of has their part. Everybody should be reaching out to their teammates, seeing how they’re doing. Because when it comes down to the time to compete for your team, you’re going to have more personality to match it to. So I’m competing for these teammates, the guys I train next to every day. When you get closer, you have more support.”

Last season, the Crimson Tide closed out the academic year with 31 All-American honors, including 13 first-team distinctions for the women and four for the men. That ranked sixth in the nation for combined All-Americans, helping confirm Alabama as a destination program in the sport.

Many of those All-Americans are back for this season like sophomore Nickolette Dunbar (shot put), junior Esther Gitahi (5,000 meters), junior Abigail Kwarteng (high jump), and sophomore Samantha Zelden in javelin.

The list for the men includes freshman Chago Basso (shot put) and junior Robert Dunning (110-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles).

At the USATF Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, sophomore Bobby Colantonio Jr. took ninth in the hammer throw (225-0, 68.59m), and Dunning was ninth in the semifinals of the 110-meter hurdles (13.67).

“I believe we’re better,” Spotswood said. “We won indoors my freshman year, and 2018 SECs, and I think we have a better team this year.”

That goes for both the men and women. 

The indoor season begins Jan. 10 with the Blazer Invitational at UAB.

“Of course over the years we’ve had hunger and drive, but we got a really nice taste of [success] last year when we placed fifth at nationals on both of our relays,” Roberson said. “But I feel like now, since we know, we’re already known our potential but since we started to tap into that potential we’re digging really hard and really trying to get further and further to that goal.

“We want more.”

This is the final story in a "What's Next" series on Alabama's winter and spring sports that appeared on BamaCentral this week.

Monday: Alabama Rowing Beginning to find its Rhythm

Tuesday: Rebuilding Crimson Tide Baseball Beginning to Look More SEC Caliber

Wednesday: Coming Off 60-Win Season, Alabama Softball Wants Even More in 2020

Thursday: Alabama Gymnastics Aims to Soar Back into Sport's Top Tier