At the end of the day, Hillsdale looked well on its way to a first national indoor track and field championship in school history. But as the Chargers and the Blue Tigers of Lincoln (Mo.) traded what looked each time like the final punch, it was Lincoln (Mo.) that came out on top.
The title came down to the last few steps, as Lincoln’s Venicha Baker closed out the 1600-meter relay by edging out Johnson C. Smith’s Fellan Ferguson. With the win in the 1600-meter relay and 10 team points in the last event of the night, Lincoln (Mo.) claimed its third championship in the last seven years.
The Blue Tigers finished runner-up in 2011 and 2013, but this year’s title is the first championship for the current class of athletes.
“I had the time to beat in my mind so I went out there and I executed my race and had a strong finish,” Baker said of her mindset while pounding through the remainder of the relay.
“We knew that if we came first we would win the championship. So we knew we had to put in our all.”
Not only did Baker and her relay team do enough to win the championship, the team’s time of 3:38.87 set the Division II title meet record in the 1600-meter relay. The previous record was also set by Lincoln with a time of 3:39.24 in 1997.
Before Lincoln’s final move to win, it had already looked like Hillsdale had pulled off a late victory. With three of the top four finishers in the 3000-meter run (Emily Oren in first, Kristina Galat in second and Hannah McIntyre in fourth), Hillsdale’s score had risen to 58 and the Chargers looked poised to secure what would have been the first women’s title in school history.
Ahead of the 1600-meter relay, the Blue Tigers’ relay team knew it had to rise to the occasion. The first-place finish lifted Lincoln to 60 points, which was enough to win the title.
The two-point margin is the closest score in the national championship meet since 2000, when Abilene Christian won over North Dakota State by a margin of only one point.
While Hillsdale’s strengths lie in distance running, Lincoln won the title with excellence on the track matched with balance in field events. Lincoln coach Victor Thomas said the team faced a setback when senior Jonelle Campbell failed to record any points in the triple jump, but the Blue Tigers’ prowess on the track made up for it.
“We put a team together with jumpers, sprinters and hurdlers,” Thomas said. “To do what we did, everything just fell in place. It just fell in place as it was, and some people just stepped up and made up for the points that we lost in the triple jump.”
Thomas said he didn’t think the title would come down to the 1600-meter relay, nor did he want it to.
“I’m proud of these kids,” Thomas said. “They fought. They threw the kitchen sink in and it worked for them. Even my top hurdler, she was hurt and she still ran. It took heart and guts and determination.”