When UCF begins competition at the Conference USA Indoor Track and Field Championships on Saturday, it won’t matter that the Knights have won the previous three C-USA titles, head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert said. It also won’t matter that the Knights have been ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation this season and have undoubtedly the best freshman sprinter in the country.
All that will matter, Smith Gilbert stressed, is how the Knights perform under pressure when it counts this weekend.
“The great thing about track and field is it only matters what happens when that gun goes off, or you make that first jump or make that first throw,” Smith Gilbert said. “You get up there and there are no barriers in your way, there’s no coach who has to put you in and no judges. It’s you and your body out there. It’s like a self-challenge. It’s the purest sport and like a parallel to life.
“In life, it’s on you to do it. In track and field, it’s on you to make it happen,” Smith Gilbert continued. “I want our athletes to learn that. This sport is great because you have to use your body and your mind to overcome your opponent, just as you have to do every day in life.”
In her five seasons at UCF, Smith Gilbert has built the Knights’ track and field program into a dynasty. The Knights, currently ranked No. 11 in the nation, won the C-USA Outdoor Championship in 2010 and then swept both the Indoor and Outdoor Championships in 2011.
Now, they head into this weekend’s Indoor Championship in Birmingham, Ala., as seemingly the team to beat.
But Smith Gilbert isn’t about to let her team get overconfident, just as she doesn’t go easy on the squad when it runs up the hills in the orange groves north of Orlando, or when it did interval runs on the sands of Cocoa Beach at 5 a.m. before the season.
The Knights feature proven stars in two-time All-America hurdler Jackie Coward and all-world freshman Octavious Freeman, but the team will be without All American Aurieyall Scott because of an injury.
Smith Gilbert said the focus now is on others who need to step up and fill the void created by Scott’s loss. Senior Shelia Paul and sophomore Dominique Booker must live up to their potential, while senior jump specialist Jacquelyn Gilchrist and freshman sprinter Christal Peterson must continue their strong performances from early in the season.
“We have some nagging injuries and some people who haven’t shown up in their events yet, so it’ll be a tough battle. If you look at the numbers, we’re not the favorite,” said Smith Gilbert, who expects strong challenges from East Carolina and Houston. “The whole team has to cooperate and when one falls, two or three more need to pick up the slack. With Aurieyall down, that’s 18 points we’re losing – where are those points going to come from? I expect them all to pick it up.”
Freeman, a Lake Wales native, has had no problem picking things up at the collegiate level following a dazzling high school career. She became just the third female ever to win the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes all four years she was in high school.
At UCF, she’s already been named the C-USA Female Athlete of the Week three times and has been named to the Bowerman Watch List, NCAA track and field’s most prestigious award.
She has the nation’s best time in the 60 meters (7.19) and C-USA’s best time in the 200 meters (23.56). That’s impressive considering Freeman had never run on the banked track at indoor meets before, and Smith Gilbert thinks with experience she can dramatically shave time off her 200-meter sprints.
Smith Gilbert likes to get athletes out of their comfort zones and challenge them to do even more than they think they can. That’s a big reason why the team was regulars at Cocoa Beach in the fall, running before sunrise most mornings. Smith Gilbert said Freeman has responded to the tough-love approach the way she had hoped.
“She gets even better when I challenge her,” Smith Gilbert said. “If you make her mad, she runs really fast. But I have to push her because she can settle in and get comfortable. So I have to push her outside of her comfort zone.”
Smith Gilbert will be most comfortable this weekend if the Knights get production from their roster, top to bottom. If that happens, and the team performs under pressure, Smith Gilbert feels UCF will live up to the high standards that it has set over the past three C-USA championship seasons.
“Rankings are just paper and you can get caught up with that, so I don’t dwell on them. But if we show up and perform like the team that I believe that we are, then the ranking won’t matter,” she said. “We’ll need everybody on this team to contribute. That’s the great thing about conference championships and that’s how it should be with everyone being needed. It’s all about the team now.”