By Kenny Bybee
The Rice Owls women’s track and field team secured its fourth Conference USA (C-USA) Outdoor Championship team title in school history May 15, winning in thrilling fashion at Dean Hayes Track on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.
Rice, which entered Sunday in fourth place, tallied 94.5 points on the final day of competition, thanks in part to three individual titles and nine top-three performances. The Owls won their first C-USA title since 2009 by edging host Middle Tennessee 136 to 129.5.
After a late rally to take the overall lead, the Owls led by 7.5 points and could only sit and watch the final section of the 4×400 relay in hopes of Middle Tennessee finishing outside the top two spots. The Blue Raiders proceeded to finish fourth and in the process clinched the team title for Rice.
Rice women’s track and field head coach Jim Bevan was named the Conference USA Women’s Coach of the Year for the fourth time in his career. It also marked the second time in school history that Bevan guided the Owls to both an outdoor and cross-country team title in the same academic year, having also accomplished the feat in 2007.
“What an unbelievable performance by our whole team today,” Bevan said. “It was truly a battle with Middle Tennessee all the way to the end. When they would hit us, we would fight right back, and it was just unbelievable competition between our team and theirs. We had a number of young ladies step up when it mattered most, and with everything on the line in the final events, we stepped up to the challenge. I’m so proud of the entire team; I couldn’t be happier.”
With only a few events remaining, Rice senior thrower Claire Uke delivered by winning the second C-USA Outdoor hammer throw gold medal of her illustrious career. After not placing in the discus Saturday, Uke rebounded by winning the shot put with a throw of 16.66 meters (54 feet, 8 inches) for her fifth career overall title. In the same shot put competition, junior Ijeoma Ugwunze placed third overall despite dealing with an injury to her hand. The McKinney, Texas, native unleashed a standing throw of 14.19 meters (46 feet, 6.75 inches) to earn all-conference honors and add another massive six team points.
The Owls also dominated the triple jump, where junior Daisy Ding won her second straight C-USA Outdoor title and third overall. The Sydney native surpassed both Middle Tennessee’s India Hammond and teammate Cybil Obiozor on her final attempt with 13 meters (42 feet, 8 inches), a season best. Obiozor, from Pearland, Texas, entered the meet battling a hamstring injury that had prevented her from sprinting but still managed to jump just shy of her season-best mark with a stellar 12.95 meters for eight team points.
Rice junior distance runner Cali Roper won her second individual title in as many days by crossing the finish line of the 5,000-meter race in a season-best time of 16 minutes, 21.75 seconds. Along with her 10,000-meter gold medal Saturday, Roper accumulated her eighth career Conference USA title between track and field and cross-country.
In that same 5,000-meter race, sophomore Abigail Cartwright made a late dash to secure second place with a lifetime best mark of 16:31.03. The Dallas native had finished third in the 1,500m (4:29.52) earlier in the afternoon and accumulated 14 points en route to all-conference honors. Sophomore distance runner Elsa Racasan, who achieved all-conference honors with a second-place result in the 1,500m (4:24.48), earned an additional five points in the 5,000m by placing fourth (16:37.36). The Owls also received a point from Katie Jensen with her best performance in the 5,000m since her freshman season.
Senior Belle MacFarlane earned C-USA All-Conference honors by establishing a new outdoor personal best in the high jump with a second-place mark of 1.78m (5 feet, 10 inches), clearing on her second attempt. It marked the third time in her career that the Dallas native earned all-conference accolades.
Other Owls who earned vital team points Sunday included freshman Bryanah Rideaux in the 400m (5th — 55.30), freshman Giulia Sportoletti in the pole vault (5th — 40.13m), junior Brooke Johnson in the 800m (8th — 2:15.65), freshman thrower Dheryl Batts in the shot put (8th — 13.39m) and the foursome of Jaylon Wesley, Rideaux, Charlsea Lamb and Eboni Sutherland in the 4×100 (6th — 46.36).
Next up for the Owls will be the NCAA Championship West Preliminary, which will take place May 26-28 in Lawrence, Kan.