By Joey Jones
Ole Miss Athletics Media and Public Relations
He bows his head. A bead of sweat loses its grasp on R.J.'s cheek and plummets to the Spec Towns Track surface in Athens, Ga.
He leans back and pulls in one more deep breath from the warm May air.
His concentration so fixed, he doesn't even hear the loud, rhythmic clapping of the eager crowd.
It takes 11 strides to reach his launching point. His first few strides pad the surface with little effort and much grace. Then, as if he flips a switch, R.J.'s legs accelerate him to top speed before any spectator can blink, and he takes off.
What happens next is nothing less than spectacular. A man, the top of whose head measures five feet, 10 inches from the ground, soars through the air, clears his shoulders, back and legs over a thin pipe that hangs 7 feet, six inches horizontally above the ground (nearly two feet above his head!) and falls softly on his back on the other side.
R.J., more commonly known to Ole Miss track and field fans as Ricky Robertson (the J. stands for Junior), has just broken the school's high jump record and has tied the best mark ever at a Southeastern Conference Championship.
The crowd goes wild, and Robertson feeds off their energy with a thunderous scream of his own. He knows he has broken the school record. He knows he has won another SEC title, his fourth in a row. He knows he has scored 10 points for his team. And he knows that for that moment, he has stolen the show from all the other athletes on the track - and he is the star.
For the Ole Miss Rebels in 2011, this was just one of the many performances that helped them achieve one of the greatest seasons in school history and be counted among the best collegiate track and field programs in the country this year.
The Rebel men finished as the 11th-best team in the nation in the indoor season and No. 19 in outdoor, while the women placed 23rd in indoor.
Head coach Joe Walker, who has now guided Ole Miss to 11 top-20 team finishes over his 29 years at the helm, is quick to point out that the 2011 campaign is among the very best.
"We had a highly successful year on the track, but that wasn't all," Walker said. "This team was outstanding in every area - academically, in the community and on the track. We have a great group of student-athletes who have represented Ole Miss in exemplary fashion. I don't like to give out favorites, but this would have to be one of the best years in Ole Miss track and field history."
Academically, Ole Miss boasted the SEC Track and Field Men's Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 400 meter hurdle SEC champion Lee Ellis Moore. A Cordova, Tenn., native who will start medical school in the fall, Moore joined fellow Rebels Sofie Persson and Barnabas Kirui as Capital One Academic All-Americans in 2011. Ten Rebels earned national academic honors from the USTFCCCA, while both the men's and women's cross country squads were tabbed All-Academic teams by that organization.
Ole Miss track athletes were quite visible in the community in 2011. Among their activities were tutoring and reading with children in area schools, assisting with tornado damage cleanup and organizing canned food and shoe drives. Kirui was tabbed the SEC's 2010-11 Community Service Leader of the Year, while Moore and Juliana Smith were named to the SEC Track and Field Community Service Team.
"If all this program does is get you to run a circle fast or jump far in the sand, and that's all you've got out of it, that's a failure," said Walker, who stresses the importance of mentoring his pupils in all areas of life, not just on the track.
"Coaching track is still a key part of what I do," Walker added. "I'm not going to have much influence as a mentor in other areas if I'm not good at my job."
Safe to say, Walker and his program are excelling in the competitive part of the job, too.
The 2011 season's success can be traced all the way back to November 2010, when Barnabas Kirui captured his third SEC cross country championship and helped the Rebels finish fifth in the league - their best result since 1996.
When the indoor season got underway, Rebel athletes began wreaking havoc on the school record books. Previous best marks were being shattered at nearly every meet, including Robertson in the indoor high jump and impressive performances by sprinters Mike Granger and Sofie Persson, long-distance runner Logan Waites, thrower Juliana Smith and pole vaulter Neal Tisher, among others. The outdoor season saw more records demolished by long-distance runner Katie Breathitt, thrower Betty Williams and repeat record showings by Robertson, Smith and Tisher.
All told, Ole Miss athletes broke 10 school records during the indoor season and eight more during the outdoor campaign. There were 25 new entries in the top-five indoor records and 31 new top-five outdoor entries.
Everything fit right into Walker's overall program goals.
"At Ole Miss, we're trying to create an environment in which you can grow and we can find out how good or great you really are. However good you can be, we want to help you achieve that," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to water, fertilize, prune and pick that seed - whatever we have to do to get you to be as good as you can be. That's why personal records are so important. If you have that Olympic greatness or World Championship greatness in you, it can happen right here."
Speaking of greatness, Rebel sophomores Robertson and Granger, who both hail from Mississippi, were particularly impressive in 2011.
With an SEC championship in both the indoor and outdoor seasons, Robertson has now won every possible league high jump crown since he began college. He also finished as the NCAA runner-up in the event at both the indoor and outdoor national meets this year, while he tied for third at the USA Championships, just missing a spot on Team USA for the World Championships later this summer.
"I don't know that there's anybody out there who has more jumping ability than he does," Walker said of his prized pupil. "He's got as good a jumping ability as anyone I've ever seen, and he's still improving."
One of college track's fastest sprinters, Granger was the NCAA runner-up in the indoor 60 meters before finishing seventh in the outdoor 100 meters to earn a pair of All-America nods. His blazing 6.55 in the 60 meters at the NCAAs took down Greg Saddler's previous school record of 6.60 that had stood since 1994.
"The good thing about Robertson and Granger is that they have had success at an early age and have come really close to some big, big things," Walker said. "It sets them up to where if they don't get the big head, if they don't get complacent or discouraged, then they can have a phenomenal junior and senior year. I think both of them are ready to do that."
Walker, also a native Mississippian, is proud of what his state's flagship university can offer to in-state talent. Magnolia State products made up six of the Rebels' 13 All-America selections in 2011.
"It gives me great pride to be able to provide a program that allows our Mississippi kids to not have to go anywhere else to reach excellence," he said. "In my 40-something year career, a vast number of my great athletes have been from Mississippi. I know that they're here, and I want to make sure that where you were born doesn't keep you from reaching your potential."
One of the best examples of a Magnolia State talent that attended Ole Miss and has excelled at the highest levels is 2008 Olympian and two-time defending world long jump champion Brittney Reese.
"She stayed in Mississippi and trains here - and she's the best in the world," Walker said. "I do take great pride in that."
Not everyone can be the best in the world. But Ole Miss Track and Field has helped many student--athletes become the best they can be. A banner year like 2011, with so many accolades and achievements, did just that.
And in doing so, they made the whole Rebel Family proud.
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