The UConn women’s track and field team took home the gold in the American Athletic Conference championship meet for the second year in a row over the course of two highly competitive days in Birmingham, Alabama this past weekend.
The meet spanned over the course of Sunday, Feb. 28 and Monday, Feb. 29. UConn scored a total of 110 points, ahead of Cincinnati’s 98.50 and Central Florida’s 91.50.
UConn was the favorite going into the meet, but the way things transpired, it came down to the wire. The Huskies trailed Cincinnati in points until the third to last track event, the 800-meter, where they scored 29 points and reclaimed first place.
Head Coach J.J. Clark was pleased with the outcome, considering that championship meets are usually close in that fashion.
Clark noted that even though there were some athletes that could have performed better, a victory is a victory, and looking at the overall outcome—a UConn victory—is the most important takeaway.
"I saw a team that was focused on winning a championship. It wasn't a pretty win where you go in there and win all the events. It was more of a scrappy win... we really had to buckle in and it came down close to the last events to determine the championship," Clark said.
In championship meets, the top eight finishers earn points for their team. The point breakdown goes as follows: 10 points for the first place finisher, eight for the second, six for the third, five for the fourth, four to the fifth, three to the sixth, two to the seventh and one to the eighth.
While this year’s meet was closer than last year’s contest (UConn scored 108 points to UCF’s 86.50), the Huskies were able to prove that their program is still one of the most versatile and diverse programs in the conference.
Sunday, while taken up mostly by preliminaries and pentathlon events, saw success as well as shortcomings for the Huskies. Senior Sajia Bikanova repeated as pentathlon champion, defeating runner-up Lucija Cvitanovic of SMU by a point total of 3829 to 3808.
That was the Huskies’ first gold medal performance of the meet, and only one of two first-place finishes for the day. The distance medley relay team also finished first with a commanding time of 11 minutes, 35.64 seconds, which was nine seconds faster than second-place finisher Temple.
The team of Alexis Panisse, Sydnee Over, Hannah Parker and Laura Williamson broke the meet record of 11:36.25, previously held by UConn’s DMR team of 2013-14.
"I was not surprised to see them break the record," Clark said with a laugh.
Senior jumpers Sarah Bowens and Odrine Belot captured third and fourth in the long jump, with leaps of 6.00m and 5.93m, respectively. Bowens was seeded first going into the day, and Belot was seeded fourth.
Belot also took the bronze in the triple jump on Monday, with a mark of 12.63m.
Freshman stud Courtney Ackerley ran a collegiate best 17:12.22 in the 5000-meter run, which was good for fourth place. She beat her seed time by 11 seconds.
At the conclusion of events on Sunday, the Huskies trailed Cincinnati in points, 38 to 36. With finals in most of the events and triple jump the next day, however, UConn had no plans to give back the trophy.
"In championship meets, you don't run to exhaustion every race. You have to conserve and come back," Clark said. "And that's what they did."
To kick off Monday’s events, Alexis Panisse and Laura Williamson earned silver and bronze medals in an incredibly tight mile run, finishing in times of 4:56.25 and 4:56.45, respectively. The gold medal finisher only beat Panisse by .12 seconds.
Senior Deysha Smith-Jenkins ran a season-best 54.82 in the 400m, capturing fifth overall. Fellow senior Paris Taft took seventh with a time of 55.58.
At this point in the meet, the Huskies trailed Cincinnati 71 to 58 in points. With only four track events left, it looked like the Bearcats had the meet in the bag.
But then came along the 800-meter run.
While no Huskies finished first in the 800m, UConn swept places 2-8. Freshman Hannah Parker and senior Panisse were the top performers, finishing second and third with times of 2:08.14 and 2:08.39, respectively.
After trailing by 13, UConn collected 29 points alone from the event, and suddenly the point total was 87 to 71 in favor of the Huskies.
Clark was not expecting to sweep all those places, but he was not surprised that the Huskies walked away from that event with so many points.
"I didn't know if it would be 20, 30, 18, 25... but I was expecting good points," Clark said.
From there, UConn never looked back. Williamson took home the gold in the 3000m, demolishing her seed time of 10:00.77 by crossing the line in 9:43.47. At that point, the point total was 104 to 90.50, and the day was all but over.
The Huskies closed out the day by capturing the bronze in the 4x400 meter relay. The team of Smith-Jenkins, Taft, Over and Parker finished behind Cincinnati with a time of 3:41.65.
However, it was too little too late for the Bearcats. UConn had made their move and solidified their status as repeat conference champions.
Clark was most impressed by Panisse's performance: she ran in the DMR, scored in the 800, took second in the mile and ran the 3k.
"That's outstanding work," Clark said.
The Huskies saw 14 individual athletes and both their relay teams qualify for the ECAC Championships. The meet is scheduled to take place March 4-5 in Boston, Massachusetts.
"My focus right now is still to savor this moment for a second," Clark said with a laugh when asked about his expectations for the weekend. "We'll have a better picture of that by Wednesday. Right now, we're just enjoying this moment."