April 29, 2014
By David Dawson
During a recent meeting with his staff, Vanderbilt head coach Steve Keith realized that he and the Commodore coaches had a predicament on their hands.
But it was the type of dilemma that any staff would love to have.
"We were getting ready to vote on some of our end-of-the-year awards, and we really had a hard time figuring out who should be the newcomer of the year," said Keith. "We've had so many who have made an impact."
Indeed, the nine newcomers on this year's roster have quickly made their mark on the Vanderbilt program. They have broken -- and in some cases, shattered -- school records throughout the indoor and outdoor seasons, and they have established themselves as arguably the best recruiting class in the program's history.
"They have been a breath of fresh air," said sophomore star Vanessa Valentine. "It seems like the freshmen are always inspiring and motivating (the rest of the team), and that's especially true with this group."
Freshman Sarah Bell, for instance, has literally raised the bar at Vanderbilt. She set a new school record in the pole vault (clearing 13-6.25) during the indoor season and then posted the program's third-best outdoor mark this spring.
Another freshman, Simone Charley, obliterated the school record in the triple jump last month when she posted a distance of 41.10.75, which easily surpassed Vanderbilt's previous best set in 1996 by Christina Penn (40.06.75).
Yet another newcomer, middle distance runner Courtney Clayton, has delivered a series of shining performances in the past six months and she currently ranks among Vanderbilt's all-time Top-10 performers in seven events (including her role as a member of the Commodore relay teams).
And the list doesn't stop there. Together, the nine freshmen -- Reagan Anderson, Carmen Carlos, Sarah Goodale, Tierney Price, Katie Watts, Bell, Charley and Clayton -- have put their names all over Vanderbilt's record book and have laid the foundation for what could be the longest run of success in the program's history.
Clayton, a first-year standout from Roscoe, Ill., said the freshmen take pride in knowing that they are helping set new standards for the Vanderbilt program, and said the newcomers have formed a tight bond.
"I am grateful to be with such a great freshmen group," she said. "We are really close (away from track) and that's been really helpful. Good or bad, we are there for each other."
In addition to new school records, several of the Vanderbilt freshmen are also making noise on the national level, with four of the newcomers posting times or distances that rank among the top-10 nationally in the "junior" classification (athletes aged 19 and under). The list includes:
** Carlos, who has sixth-fastest time in the 3000 at 9:41.65, and ranks No. 7 in the 1500 with a time of 4:31.22;
** Clayton, who ranks No. 4 nationally in the 800 with a time of 2:07.60;
** Charley, whose school-record triple jump (41.10.75) ranks fourth in the nation; and
** Goodale, who recorded this season's seventh-highest point total in the heptathlon with 4,767 points.
The immediate impact of the freshmen has not come as a surprise to Keith. He said he and his staff were "super excited" about this class when they signed with Vanderbilt, and said the group has clearly lived up to expectations.
"It's been nice to see them follow through," he said.
The impressive efforts by the freshmen has been a perfect compliment to record-setting seniors Liz Anderson and Brionne Williams, and has helped Vanderbilt produce one of its most memorable seasons in recent history.
"We see big potential in every single one of them," said Keith of his young stars, "and we've seen them come up to the level we'd hoped for."
Naturally, the transition from high school to college has been a challenge for the newcomers. But the freshmen have quickly found their groove.
"It's been a big learning curve (in terms of juggling) school, track practice and the meets, and also getting to know everyone -- so there's a lot going on," said Clayton. "For me, personally, I didn't really know what to expect. But the (older team members) have really helped me out and shown us the ropes."
And the benefits have worked both ways.
Valentine said the newcomers have helped push the other team members in practice, and have brought a level of energy to the team that has been contagious.
Valentine said that she and Carlos have become training partners, and that Carlos has "jumped right in" in terms of the regimen that is required of the Vanderbilt athletes. It is that type of attitude that has enabled the freshmen to blend together seamlessly with the other Commodores.
"Our team is one big family," said Valentine. "We have great team chemistry."
When the season started, there was no guarantee that the team would galvanize so quickly. Nor was it a given that the freshmen would be able to handle the jump to college life.
"About six or eight years ago, the freshmen who came in didn't have any idea about (the level of competition)," said Keith, "and once they found out, it scared the heck out of them."
But this year's group? Well, that's a different story. They are fearless freshmen.
"They are not intimidated," said Keith, "and they are not afraid of the competition."
Although the nine freshman each bring different elements to the team, Keith said there is at least one common thread --- endless enthusiasm.
"One of the things I love about the freshmen is their energy," said Keith. "Traveling with them, you can (see their excitement). It's still so new to them. ... Hopefully they will never lose that exuberance."
Based on what they have done so far, there seems to be little chance of that.