May 22, 2018
OXFORD, Miss. – Ole Miss head coach Connie Price-Smith isn’t one to rest on her laurels. Throughout her mesmerizing career as an Olympic athlete and coach, she has rarely brought her nose up from the grindstone.
She finished an astounding basketball career at Southern Illinois in 1984, and then immediately set to trying out the discus for the Salukis in 1985. She went on to compete in four Olympiads and won a preposterous 25 national titles, and then she jumped right into the coaching ranks following her final season in 2000 – earning her own program to run at her alma mater in 2001. And then, after turning Southern into a mid-major powerhouse that could compete with the best in the nation, she came to Ole Miss in 2015 and set her sights on perhaps the most challenging conference in the sport: the SEC.
And that brings us to late last Sunday night after yet another hot day at the University of the Tennessee for the SEC Outdoor Championships. The Rebel women have had an incredible meet thus far, claiming 24 points alone from senior thrower Janeah Stewart (who would go on to win the Commissioner’s Trophy for the third time in her career) and 21 from the women’s steeplechase the night before.
The final races of the evening are set to begin: the 4x400-meter relays. A glance at the team standings heading in show something exciting: the Rebel women, who just a handful of seasons ago finished last, are technically within team title contention, trailing the eventual champions, No. 9 Florida, by just nine points at 83-74.
No. 23 Ole Miss ends up finishing a program-high fifth in the women’s standings with 74 points, beating out three top-10 teams in the process in No. 4 Arkansas (70), No. 5 Kentucky (70), and No. 6 Georgia (61) – all national title contenders. In three years under Price-Smith, the Rebel women have scored 153.25 points outdoors – more than quadruple the previous three years combined (34).
Success isn’t foreign to Price-Smith and her staff, but the speed at which it has taken off has caught her slightly off guard this past week.
“I would not have predicted the way things went down at SECs, at all,” Price-Smith said. “But those are wonderful surprises, because we have the talent there, and it was nice to see our athletes come in and compete and do what they needed to score points. They were definitely on a mission.”
Let’s try to put in perspective how thoroughly dominant the SEC is in track. Nationally, five of the top-10 women’s teams and eight of the top-10 men’s team finishers outdoors in 2017 were SEC schools. In the individual category, 19 of the 42 NCAA outdoor trophies went to SEC schools last season.
The Missouri Valley is no slouch of a track conference, either, as it has long been an above-average mid-major conference and certainly was during Price-Smith’s tenure at SIU when there were several world-class athletes competing in the MVC – particularly in the throws. But coming to the SEC, which owns nearly one-third of the all-time top-10 in both the NCAA men’s and women’s record books outdoors, was going to be a spectacular new challenge.
“I really thought we were in a great conference in the MVC,” Price-Smith said. “It was a very strong conference, but coming into the SEC was just a whole other world. It is easier to compete on a national level here than it is to compete on a conference level because the talent is so spread out amongst all the schools here. It’s hard to imagine how we can come in here and compete the way we have been and still only finish fifth. I thought the women did a phenomenal job, but when you score that many points and you’re only fifth, it just shows you how tough it is here.”
The success isn’t just on the women’s side. The Rebel men have had extraordinary team finishes of their own the last couple seasons as well, including an NCAA title from the men’s distance medley relay indoors in 2017. However, much of the success that Ole Miss has enjoyed these last few years isn’t due just to Price-Smith and her talented staff. It also belongs to the incredible athletes she inherited who are now writing a new history for the Rebel track & field program as seniors.
“From the first day I got here when they were freshmen and sophomores, watching them grow and develop has been wonderful to watch,” Price-Smith said. “I owe a lot to them for helping this program rise as fast as it has.”
That senior leadership has been on display in full-form this season, with distance runners like Sean Tobin, Robert Domanic and Shelby Brown helping mold young runners like Clio Ozanne-Jaques, Everett Smulders, Waleed Suliman and Lisa Vogelgesang along the way. Same goes for sprinters like Jolie Carbo and Shannon Ray, who have rewritten the Ole Miss record book despite how ultra-competitive the SEC sprint scene is. Not to mention two transfer throwers that Price-Smith brought to Oxford in Stewart and Brian Williams, who have scored 118 combined SEC points between them in just two seasons.
“(The seniors) kind of set the stage for everybody else,” Price-Smith said. “I’ve told them that they are leaving a legacy for everybody else to follow, and they have done a great job of being supportive and motivating and helping mold the younger kids into the type of athletes for the kind of program that I want to run.”
However, the work is far from over for Price-Smith and her staff. There are still two high-profile meets this outdoor season for those Rebel seniors (and youngsters) to make their mark – the NCAA East Regional (May 24-26) and the NCAA Outdoor Championships (June 6-9) – and then it’s back to the grindstone on turning Ole Miss into a consistent national player.
“It’s just going to take a little more than we have right now,” Price-Smith said. “We lose a few of our top people, but I think that the assistant coaches have done a great job recruiting and bringing in talent that will step in. That was obvious even this year with our freshman class that stepped up, and I think we’re bringing in even more freshmen that will come in and compete as well.”
Above all the success and the hard work, Price-Smith is enjoying herself – a scary thought for any coaches looking at how far the Rebels have come in just three seasons under her watch.
“These three years have gone by really fast, and they’ve been enjoyable,” Price-Smith said. “I love Oxford, I love being here at Ole Miss.”
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