May 13, 2015 10:48:55 AM
Funny how greatness can sometimes come from just a small idea.
That's what happened with Mississippi State track and field standout Erica Bougard.
As a sophomore six years ago at Byhalia High School, a Class 1A program in north Mississippi, Bougard had shown promise on the basketball court for the Indians.
One day, though, she was inspired to try another sport.
"I did track because it got me out of class," Bougard said with a smile. "I really didn't plan for it to go anywhere. I just knew that with practice and meets and stuff, I could get out of class more often. That was appealing to me. But it turned into the biggest decision of my life."
Math's loss has turned into track's gain because Bougard was right at home the moment she set foot on the track. Her ability allowed her to turn her side sport into her main hobby and parlay the passing interest into a scholarship offer at MSU. As she approaches the end of one of the most decorated careers in school history, Bougard, a senior, hopes to be one of MSU's most reliable performers at this weekend's Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships. MSU will play host to the event for the first time since 2002.
"She raises the bar, the expectations of the other girls on the team," MSU coach Steve Dudley said. "I think if you looked at our team now and from when she got here, I think you'll see that it's daylight and dark. She has raised the level of our entire team during her career."
The event, which begins Thursday and continues through Saturday, will see Bougard compete for a conference championship. In 2013, Bougard became the Bulldogs' first NCAA Indoor National Pentathlon Champion (school-record 4,399 points). She also owns the school record in the heptathlon with a personal-best of 5,990 points. Bougard has her sights set on that record this weekend.
"It would be huge to win on my home turf," Bougard said. "But my biggest goal is to set my personal record. If I do that, I will be satisfied and, hopefully, the rest will take care of itself."
Bougard set her personal record in 2013. She earned her highest total this season (5,962) in February at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California.
Her highest SEC finish is a second-place showing in the heptathlon in 2013. In that event, she won the 100-meter hurdles, the 200, and the long jump.
The heptathlon has seven events. Day one of the SEC's heptathlon competition will take place Thursday. It will feature the 100 hurdles, the high jump, the shot put, and the 200. The competition will continue Friday, when Bougard will compete in the long jump, the javelin, and the 800.
"I think my coach would tell you that my strongest event is the 800," Bougard said. "But I probably feel the best in the long jump, and my high jump is getting pretty good, too."
Bougard will be the only competitor from Byhalia -- a town with 1,302 residents in Marshall County -- at the conference championship.
Growing up, Bougard was like a lot of girls in Byhalia in that she played basketball. She averaged 13.9 points per game as a senior, so it was natural for Bougard to think that's where she would end up.
"Basketball is my first love," Bougard said. "At first, I really wasn't interested in track. Once I got started, I found out I was pretty good."
That start came from the desire to participate in as many extra-curricular activities as possible to stay active and in shape for basketball. What she found, though, was her life's calling. Her career started running relays for the Indians. Her destiny changed after a family member reached out to her.
"When I was in high school, my cousin had an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) track team, so I would go to Memphis to compete," Bougard said. "One day, my AAU coach said to try the heptathlon. The first meet I tried it, I was pretty good, so I stuck with it. Next thing you know, I'm getting a scholarship offer from Mississippi State."
With basketball and track sharing top billing, Bougard excelled in both. On the AAU circuit, she began to piece together her future, one event win at a time, in the hepathlon and pentathlon.
"I didn't really like it at first, but I was winning," Bougard said. "I kept being successful, so I stuck with it. I love it now."
Dudley believes Bougard's small-town roots have motivated her.
"She's shown it doesn't matter where you're from. You can be from Byhalia, Mississippi, and be an NCAA champion," Dudley said. "It only matters how much you want it and how much you're willing to put in. And she has wanted it pretty bad."
Turning the corner
When Bougard arrived at MSU, her love for basketball hadn't faded. But a freshman season that saw her earn All-America status and recognition as the SEC's Field Freshman of the Year put her at a crossroads: Double down on her track career or find another home to play basketball.
"When we recruited her out of high school, she was a big-time basketball player," said Dudley. "If you asked her what her first love was, it was basketball. Even though she had a good freshman year, she still mentally was a basketball lover. Inside of her was a conflict with whether she wanted to be a track athlete or basketball player. I really think she had to make a decision at the end of that year whether to stay here at Mississippi State or go somewhere else and play basketball."
The summer of 2012 brought clarity. She traveled to the U.S. Junior Championships and qualified for World Championship competition. When Bougard returned to campus following a summer competing for her country, Dudley said the switch had flipped.
"It clicked in her that I am good at this and this is something I can be really good at and I can be on team USA," Dudley said. "She always tried hard at practice, but you can tell when a kid is mentally and physically invested. She was always 100 percent physically, but not mentally prior to that. When she put that USA jersey on, she was like, 'OK, I am 100 percent.' "
Ready to compete
This weekend, Bougard will attempt to claim her first conference title, and her first major championship since winning the 2013 Indoor title.
The chance to do so in Starkville is appealing to Bougard.
"It's very exciting," Bougard of MSU playing host to the SEC meet. "I don't have to travel, don't have to go anywhere, so we have the chance to rest our bodies more. It's exciting to have it here so we can show people we have a great college town."
In addition to the heptathlon, Bougard will compete in the 100 hurdles, a race she has won three times in the outdoor season. She won at Alabama's Crimson Tide Invitational with a time of 13.52 seconds on March 28. She set a personal-best time April 10 in a win at MSU's Border Clash.
But the heptathlon is where Bougard has made her name. At the Mt. SAC Multi in April, when she posted her season-best cumulative score, Bougard won the heptathlon on the strength of victories in the 100 hurdles and 200. She finished second in the high jump and 800 and third in the long jump.
Bougard's versatility has helped her become one of MSU's most decorated track and field athletes.
It hasn't come easy, though.
"You have to be so dedicated to be a heptathlete or decathlete," Bougard said. "I practice for hours on end, going from event to event. I'll start some days with shot put then go to long jump. Then I'll do all my running. It's a lot of work.
"But it's worth it because this is what my life is about. This is what I want to be, a champion."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
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