EUGENE, Ore. -- There is about to be a radical change in the Smith household back in Carbondale, Illinois.
After Southern Illinois throwers DeAnna Price and Raven Saunders were both crowned NCAA champions on Thursday, their coach John Smith is going to have to shave the moustache he has had since he was 17 years old.
The new look comes as a result of a long-standing bet. The deal first began at the NCAA indoor championships this year, as the Southern Illinois throwers, including men’s shot put participant Josh Freeman, said if they got to 25 points, the facial hair would have to go.Smith agreed.
At indoors in March, the team finished with 23 points. But Thursday at the outdoor championships, the Salukis made the cut, earning 25 team points.
“It’s gone,” Saunders said.
After Freeman took fourth in the men’s shot put on Wednesday, finishing with 20.15 meters (66-1½ ), Price was first up Thursday in the women’s hammer. Price wasn’t predicted to finish in the top three by many. But the junior said she prefers it that way.
“I like being the dark horse. A lot of people didn’t expect me to do what I did today -- and I like that,” she said.
She clinched the title after her fifth attempt, but took her last throw anyway. On that throw, she broke a meet record, throwing 71.49 meters (234-6). Her prior personal record was 67.72 meters.
“It was the biggest relief when I finally hit over that 70-meter line,” Price said. “All of this weight just lifted off me. I just started crying.”
After her win, she hugged Smith first, then her parents and grandparents, who made the trip out to Eugene, Oregon, from the small town of Moscow Mills, Missouri.
“Having them just support me and seeing everything, and being able to just know what I did,” she said. “I finally did it! I am just so ecstatic.”
Unlike Price, Saunders was the favorite in her event after winning the indoor shot put title this season. The freshman won on her final throw of 18.35 meters (60-2½ ).
Saunders said that winning last minute is something she is used to and doesn’t affect her mentally. She added that seeing Price set a record on her last throw gave her confidence.
Price’s words of wisdom might have helped, too, as Price said she planned to tell Saunders before her event that “it’s her time to go eat your spaghetti and go after it.”
“We have this team saying that before we go out we say, ‘Let’s go eat,’ meaning that we have to go out and do everything we can and put your best effort forward,” Saunders said.
In her first year at Southern Illinois, Saunders now has two titles. Her long-term goal would be to win eight in a row in one event.
Smith said Saunders’ tenacity is a big reason for her success.
“The way she competes and the way she attacks -- she doesn’t act like a freshman,” he said. “She’s got the thing that you can’t coach or you can’t teach, you know. Honestly, on that last throw I didn’t know if she was going to do it or not, and she found a way to find three feet. I knew she had it in her.”
Smith said one of his goals is to make Southern Illinois a place to go to develop and become an All-American and national champion. As an alum of the university and one of SIU’s best throwers, he wants to put the track program back on the map.
“When I was in school, SIU was a track and field power on the men’s side,” he said. “We are trying to get back to what SIU used to be. We used to be a team that was feared, a big-time major program.”
He prides himself on recruiting student-athletes with a work ethic, what he calls “blue-collared kids with a chip on their shoulder that have something to prove. And that’s DeAnna and that’s Raven.”
SIU head coach Connie Price-Smith, wife to John and a four-time Olympian in the throws, said she is very excited for what her team accomplished.
“You knew they were prepared to do that, and you just don't know what is going to happen when they get in there and compete,” she said. “So for them to actually do what they were capable of doing -- it’s just an awesome day.”
Although the throwers were prepared, she admitted she may not be ready for her husband’s face will look like after 25 years of marriage.