COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Belmont University women's track and field team has been stuck in neutral since joining the Ohio Valley Conference six years ago, but the combination of veteran leadership and a talented crop of freshman has sparked hope headed into the OVC Outdoor Championships this week.
The OVC meet begins Thursday with the decathlon and heptathlon events on the track at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium. It's there in Cookeville, Tenn., that the Bruins will look to improve on a 10th-place finish from a year ago.
Belmont has finished no higher than ninth each year since joining the OVC in 2012. The team accumulated 27.5 points last year, well behind champion Eastern Illinois University's 128.
"We have a great group of freshmen girls that are the future of the program. We expect them to score and do well, and then from that learn what it takes to really be the cornerstones of a program as young athletes," said Belmont Assistant Track Coach Joe Frye.
That group includes a pair of impressive throwers as well as those on the track.
Swedish imports Jessica Mattsson and Maja Gustafsson own two of Belmont's top marks this season entering the conference meet. Gustafsson put up the OVC's fourth-best javelin throw this season at 42.73 meters and Mattsson has the third-best hammer throw of 54.57 meters, a short-lived school record from earlier this year. Senior teammate Alyssa Andersen (Oswego, Ill.) topped that more recently in 54.85, the OVC's No. 2 mark in the hammer throw.
The top eight placers at this week's meet will score points toward the team total.
Junior Karly Hibbard (Edmonds, Wash.) is Belmont's only other female athlete ranked as high in the conference. She threw 44.40 meters in the javelin to earn the No. 2 spot. Hibbard also ranks seventh in the shot put.
Senior Sally Larson (Fall City, Wash.) is the top-seeded Bruin on the track after running the conference's fifth-best time in the 5,000 meters during the season. Freshman Caroline Pruitt (Allen, Texas) ranks sixth in the 400-meter hurdles, a performance that earned her OVC Female Track Athlete of the Week honors early in the season.
Belmont's 4x400-meter relay team is expected to add to the point tally as well. The Bruins enter the conference meet with the fourth-best time in the OVC in the event.
"This is a good time for the women to be able to own where they are in the conference and work on it," Coach Frye said. "So much of the year we spend by ourselves competing against teams that are not in our conference. After this we're going to learn what it takes to move up a place."
A few Bruins are also hoping their marks will be good enough for their track seasons to continue beyond the end of the OVC Outdoor Championships, which run through Saturday. The region's top 48 times or distances in each event from across the entire year qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary held later this month at Tampa, Fla.
Hibbard is the closest, her javelin mark checking in at 53rd in the East Region. The throws by Gustafsson, Andersen and Mattsson all rank 81st or better as well.
OVC OUTDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS INFORMATION
BELMONT WOMEN RANKED IN OVC TOP 12
12. Kiera Weems, sr. — 2:18.66
12. Jessica King, sr. — 4:40.38
5. Sally Larson, sr. — 17:10.46
9. Kortney Schardt, so. — 17:35.22
11. Ali White, fr. — 37:46.57
6. Caroline Pruitt, fr. — 1:03.57
7. Karly Hibbard, jr. — 13.35m
2. Alyssa Andersen, sr. — 54.85m (78th in NCAA East)
3. Jessica Mattsson, fr. — 54.57m (81st in NCAA East)
2. Karly Hibbard, jr. — 44.40m (53rd in NCAA East)
4. Maja Gustafsson, fr. — 42.73m (74th in NCAA East)