OXFORD, Miss. - Ole Miss will open its 2015-16 track & field season Friday at the Panther Indoor Icebreaker in Birmingham, Alabama, which also marks the first meet for Rebels head coach Connie Price-Smith.
Price-Smith, who was hired by Ole Miss in July after 14 successful seasons as the head coach at Southern Illinois University, leads a program that returns six of its school-record nine outdoor All-Americans from last season. Since Price-Smith arrived in Oxford, the Rebels have also welcomed three transfers who earned All-America honors at their previous school.
Friday's meet will be held at the Birmingham CrossPlex, site of this year's NCAA Indoor Championships. The competition, which begins at 9 a.m. and runs through the evening, will set the stage for the rest of the 2016 indoor season that will resume Jan. 15-16 at the Kentucky Invitational in Lexington.
"This is an early meet where our athletes get to show off what they've done in training, see where they're at, and then kind of gauge where they need to be when we come back in January," Price-Smith said. "I think we'll have a good meet. Everybody's ready and psyched about getting out there and competing and showing what they can do. When you start off that way it sets a good tempo for the rest of the year. I'm excited about seeing them go out and do their thing."
Ole Miss will send 12 male athlete and 24 female athletes to Birmingham. Most of the men's cross country team that just wrapped up a second straight NCAA Championships appearance, will not run.
Last year's indoor season saw the Ole Miss men finish four at the SEC Championships, their best result in 31 years, while the women came in 13th. The Rebels look to improve on those results and send several more athletes to the national meet with a quality showing in Price-Smith's first campaign.
Returning All-Americans on this year's men's squad are Robert Domanic (outdoor 1500m), Craig Engels (outdoor 800m), Branden Greene (outdoor high jump) and MJ Erb (cross country at Syracuse). Returning SEC medalists include Domanic (outdoor 1500m, indoor distance medley relay), Engels (outdoor 1500m, indoor mile, indoor distance medley relay), Dempsey McGuigan (outdoor hammer throw), Will Spiers (indoor distance medley relay) and Sean Tobin (outdoor 5000m, indoor mile, indoor distance medley relay).
All-Americans back on the women's side are Nicole Henderson (outdoor 4x100m relay), Shannon Ray (outdoor 200m, outdoor 4x100m relay) and Khadijah Suleman (outdoor 4x100m relay). Distance runner Mary Alex England is one of the best in school history, including a sixth-place finish in the 5000m at last year's SEC indoor meet and a 10th-place result at the most recent SEC Cross Country Championships.
"I'm really excited about seeing them compete," said Price-Smith of her new pupils. "I've seen a few of them compete at nationals, but for the most part I haven't gotten to see them at a meet. I'm interested to see how they come out and handle themselves when they get into competition and turn on that gameday face."
Ole Miss welcomes several high-level transfers to the program, including one of the best freshmen in collegiate track & field history.
Sophomore Raven Saunders was the NCAA indoor and outdoor women's shot put champion last season while at Southern Illinois. The American junior record holder in the shot, she has also won the last two USATF junior titles and a Pan American junior title. Her NCAA-winning throw of 18.62m/61-1.25 at last year's national indoor meet bettered her own American junior record and moved her to No. 4 in NCAA indoor history.
Sophomore Lindsey Murray also joins the Rebels from Southern Illinois, where she was an indoor All-American with a ninth-place finish in the pole vault at last year's NCAA Indoor Championships. She placed third at the 2015 USATF Junior Championships. Her best vault of 14-1.25 as a freshman last year would break the all-time Ole Miss women's record.
Together, Saunders and Murray helped Price-Smith's women's team finish ninth at the NCAA Indoor Championships and 12th at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
On the men's side, Ole Miss welcomes 2015 indoor All-American Ryan Manahan from Georgetown and Ryan Walling from North Carolina. Manahan placed fifth at last year's NCAA indoor meet to earn All-America accolades. Walling was a three-time All-ACC performer with the Tar Heels, including a third-place finish in the 5,000 meters at the 2014 ACC Indoor Championships.
"We brought in some NCAA participants and we have a good group of returning NCAA athletes who were already on the team," said Price-Smith, who will also coach the U.S. women at the 2016 Rio Olympics. "I think it's going to be a good mix. I think they'll feed off of each other once the competition starts and they start to see each other's progress."
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