March 11, 2013 9:47:00 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- D'Angelo Cherry is one of the rare people who ended his college career exactly the way he wanted to -- the best at what he does.
Cherry ran the 60-meter dash final in 6.54 seconds to capture the 2013 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. The victory would mark the last time Cherry would ever compete for Mississippi State University putting a storybook finish on a career that has seen many peaks and valleys in his four years of competition.
"It's been such a pleasure being an MSU Bulldog," Cherry said after the race Saturday. "It's a bittersweet moment for me, but I'm so thankful for everyone who stood behind me, holding me up when I wanted to give up. I love my team."
Crossing the line first in arguably the most intense and adrenaline packed event of the national indoor competition completed a journey of his final winter campaign that started with his coach giving him a special piece of news.
MSU coach Steve Dudley told his best sprinter before Christmas break that the NCAA had granted him eligible for the indoor season after constant hamstring injuries had caused him to miss competitions throughout his college career.
"I just walked up to him one day and said 'Hey by the way -- you have a indoor season left if you want it," Dudley said. "You should've seen the look on his face. He has battled through a lot to experience this moment. The entire Mississippi State nation should be very proud that a person can truly persevere through anything."
In the same NCAA championships, MSU sophomore Erica Bougard captured her first ever national title in the pentathlon. Bougard entered the meet ranked fourth nationally in the pentathlon and second in the SEC.
Her total of 4,399 points on Sunday is the best in school history.
"Winning my first national championship feels amazing," Bougard said. "It was great to have three personal records in the shot put, hurdles and the 800. There was a lot of competition today, and I just gave it my all and came out on top."
A week prior to being NCAA champion, Cherry was considered the favorite in the event after winning the USA Indoor Track and Field event by turning in a personal-best time of 6.49 seconds to crown him champion.
At that meet, his coach wasn't even there to see him cross the finish line first because he had to hit the recruiting trail in that afternoon after seeing his senior sprinter warm up that morning. Dudley says he got the play-by-play of the seven-second race via his cell phone from his wife Tiffany.
"I was at the airport while the finals were going on and my wife is screaming into the phone 'I think he's got it, I think he's got it'," Dudley said. "Looking at the film, I can't believe she was saying 'think' because it wasn't really close. He clearly blew away the field in that race."
The relationship between Dudley and Cherry has evolved over time from the beginning where the two were always butting heads philosophically on the training schedule to today where both men have admitted to tailoring their personalities more toward compromise.
"As the athlete realizes about the maturity that goes into keeping his body healthy and doing all the things nobody sees on the track to make sure you're not taking shortcuts in your training, that's the special thing," Dudley said. "Some times it's been with conflict. If you think we've always sat here and spoken calmly to each other, you're crazy.
"We've had to get into it a little bit over the years."
Cherry admitted in a media conference at Humphrey Coliseum days before the NCAA championships that his injury history had much to do with his lack of discipline in taking care of his body the way a world-class athlete must do to run elite times.
"When you get here to college, you have to adapt mentally to all the things off the track that can hinder your performance," Cherry said.
"These things would affect me in practice and training. Injuries would slowly follow after my practices didn't feel great."
Cherry, who was born in Biloxi and raised in Jonesboro, Geo., has been fully healthy this winter for the first time since his freshman season at MSU and that has been a major factor to him setting personal best times that are comparable with the word's best in the amateur ranks.
"There's a lot of sports where you can be X percent off and still play at a high level," Dudley said. "You hear it all the time that in basketball or football that he's 75 percent physically but he's still going to play. You take 25 percent off a 100-meter or 60-meter dash and you can't even compete at all."
Cherry currently holds the American junior record for the 60 meters, the school freshman record for the 100-yard dash and was part of the school's record 4X100-meter relay record time of 38.96 seconds.
The only regret for Dudley as a leader of the MSU track and field program is he'll no longer get to coach Cherry, who arguably his most successful sprinter in his second season as head coach of the program.
"I don't have any more surprises up my sleeve," Dudley said with a smile referencing the meeting he had with Cherry months ago in Humphrey Coliseum.