Marshall track and field: Friends, former roommates off to nationals
When they were roommates in the past, Marshall track and field athletes Vanessa Jules and Crystal Walker would talk about their goals - to make the NCAA championship meet in Eugene, Ore. To do it together.
Lofty goals, they were. The Thundering Herd had never sent two participants to that meet in the same year. But Jules and Walker have been all about surpassing expectations this season. Consider this another hurdle cleared.
The senior pair heads to Eugene this week to make program history, marking the first time the Herd's attendance at the NCAA championships wasn't a solo act. Walker will compete in the long jump, with Jules in the heptathlon.
"I remember talking about, while living together, that we were going to make it," Jules said. "We were going to do this. We were going to go to nationals. We're going to make it to the next level and it's going to be me and her. To get the chance to do this together is a great feeling."
Jules and Walker made sure that plan didn't remain just idle words left hanging in an old living room. They put it into action, remaining among each other's biggest supporters during the 2013 outdoor track season.
"We came together and said if we want to get where we want to go, we'll have to push each other," Walker said. "We've been there for each other all year to make sure we get to where we need to."
Where they arrived is at the top of the Conference USA medal platform. Walker won the conference title in the triple jump and finished fourth in the long jump. Her third place in the long jump in the NCAA East Preliminaries guaranteed her trip to Eugene. Her jump of 6.26 meters in the prelims has her seeded 12th entering this weekend. But she's jumped as long as 6.35 meters this season, and Marshall Coach Jeff Small thinks she'll go for broke in Eugene.
"Crystal's going to wow everyone," Small said. "She's really going to jump well. I think the success she's had, she's a person who really, really, really wants it. Now she has an opportunity to go out there and get it. She's not going to let that opportunity go to waste."
Jules set a school and C-USA record by scoring 5,807 points to win the heptathlon. That beat her score from last season's conference outdoor championships by nearly 600 points and has her seeded second going into nationals. Also the conference champion in the high jump, Jules was named Monday as the Mid-Atlantic region's women's field athlete of the year by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. She was joined by assistant Coach Willie Johnson, who guides the Herd in sprints, hurdles and jumps and was named the Mid-Atlantic women's assistant coach of the year.
Jules set personal records in five of the heptathlon's seven events at the C-USA championships. Yet she feels she can go further and accomplish even more this weekend. She didn't enter the conference meet with a specific score in mind. All she wanted was to contribute as many points as she could to Marshall's team score.
This weekend, though, she does have her sights set on a big number.
"I want to score 6,000, 6,000-plus," she said. "I'm capable of scoring 6,000-plus. I've had a good two weeks of practices, so it should be something special when I get to Eugene."
With Jules and Walker in front, the Marshall women's track and field team this year reached heights never before seen. The Herd had never finished higher than 11th at the C-USA championships before finishing a stunning fifth in May. Now Jules and Walker will continue this banner season on the biggest stage in collegiate track and field.
It still hasn't sunk in for them yet, the enormity of what they've accomplished and the possibility of what lies ahead at nationals. They figure that, once they start warming up at the University of Oregon's Heyward Field, it'll hit them. But Small knows what their presence in Eugene means to Marshall's program. And he knows that, even though the Herd has never sent a tandem to the NCAA national meet, Jules and Walker will be ready for the spotlight.
"They're really going to go out with a bang out there," he said. "It's going to be a great place to compete."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.