May 17, 2010
By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF track standout Jackie Coward spent Sunday morning saying her prayers and then had to wonder if some divine intervention was at play when lightening crackled, thunder popped and horns blared as she moved into the set position for the 100-meter hurdles event.
With a thunderstorm in the area and weather sirens going off, UCF's runners kept their focus in a race that proved to be the seminal moment of the Conference USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships for the Knights.
UCF's Coward, Tiki James and Micaela Wimberly finished first, second and third in the 100-meter hurdles final, vaulting the Knights from sixth to third place and paving the way for what was to come.
The Knights used the momentum from that race and several strong individual performances throughout the four-day event at UCF to eventually win the first Women's U-USA Outdoor Championship in school history.
UCF finished with 114 points, bettering UTEP (109) after the Miners had led the field during much of Sunday's action. Rice, women's champions each of the past three seasons, finished a distant third place (87 points).
"I'm just so excited for this team because of all we've been through together," said Coward, a sophomore who was recruited to UCF with the promise of being able to win championships. "We've cried together, hollered and yelled at each other, but for everybody to step up to the plate and give everything they had for the team was amazing."
Amazing might be the way to describe the steady climb of UCF's women's track and field program over the past three seasons under heda coach Caryl Smith Gilbert. She recruited Coward, UCF's most decorated track recruit ever from Knoxville, Tenn. to Orlando, with the belief that she would be a transcendent athlete capable of winning titles. When that moment finally came late Sunday night, Smith Gilbert's style of tough love coaching was celebrated by her athletes.
"Things were looking a little bleak when we were fifth in the Indoor Championships. And we had some tumultuous team meetings and hard times, but what we did was stay honest with each other," Smith Gilbert said. "But we somehow all got on the same page. We had to go through that, but in the end we learned that we still had each other's backs."
Smith Gilbert said the realization that the Knights were champions didn't truly hit her until the team came together for a group hug late Sunday night. Suddenly, Smith Gilbert said the team's tears of frustration throughout the season morphed into tears of joy late Sunday night.
"We have everything in place here to be a championship program and it's to be expected, but I think I might have underestimated how hard it would be," Smith Gilbert said. "We wanted it as a goal, but there were many times that we were humbled. I think I appreciate it more now because of what we've had to go through and we know how hard it is to win a conference championship."
The Knights are champions today because of inspiring performances from hurdlers Aisha Frazier and Coward and throwing standout LaKendra Thames. Frazier, who has battled leg injuries most of the season, qualified for the 400-meter hurdles as the eighth-fastest runner out of eight, but she shockingly edged Coward for first place in the finals despite having to run the oval from the hated Lane 1 slot.
Coward said seeing Frazier, her roommate and closest friend at UCF, win was as gratifying as doing so herself.
"I was rejoicing with her. That's my roommate and my best friend and we're like family out there," Coward said. "I've told Aisha to come out to beat me and come for me in these races and it was so good to see her do that."
Said Smith Gilbert of Coward's team-first mentality: "Jackie is the most unselfish athlete I've ever been around. She's just a great kid."
Thames, a three-time honor roll student who has thrived at UCF despite a rocky family background, set new school records in the discus and shot put to finish second overall in both events over the weekend.
But no moment was bigger than the 100-meter hurdles, the event where UCF took the top three spots and put itself in position to win the school's first-ever outdoor track title. Coward was unfazed by the impending storm and the blaring sirens, and knew her team was capable of big things following the event-turning race.
"After that hurdle finals I was just shocked and I just started thinking that Lord Jesus was working on my behalf," Coward said. "After that race, we knew it was going to be a fight (to win the championship) because we went from sixth to third. I prayed really hard for us and He showed out for us. That was the race that did it for us and I thank God."