June 8, 2010 9:32:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Al Schmidt remembers Tiffany McWilliams carrying the Mississippi State women''s track and field team at the NCAA Championships six seasons ago.
The former NCAA champion accounted for 10 points in the 2003 and 2004, and is one of the most heralded performers in Schmidt''s tenure at MSU.
Entering this week''s national championships, Schmidt will bring seven athletes to Eugene, Ore., in an attempt to set a school record for points.
"When we scored those 10 points in 2003 and 2004, it was Tiffany winning the 1,500 and setting the world on fire," he said. "But this is the best group of women we''ve ever sent. We''re in as good a shape as we''ve ever been."
Led by seniors LaQuinta Aaron and Wendy Copeland, who competed last year at nationals, the Bulldogs hope to send the pair out as All-Americans, much like Marrissa Harris ended her MSU career in 2009.
However, Aaron and Copeland finished 21st and 20th in the heptathlon and long jump, respectively, at the 2009 NCAA meet. Last year, MSU scored its only point on Harris'' eighth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles.
This season, MSU''s seniors enter with runner-up finishes at the Southeastern Conference meet, and Aaron is ranked eighth in the heptathlon.
"She did that without a fabulous first day," Schmidt said of Aaron''s finish at NCAA regionals. "She had a phenomenal second day, and I think if she does what she can do better on the first day she can be in the top four or five."
MSU senior Crystal Wilson and freshman Jody-Ann Muir are ranked No. 22 and No. 14, respectively, in the open 400. Wilson shaved a half second off her personal-best time, clocking in at 53.11 seconds at the NCAA East Regional.
Muir, a Jamaican-born freshman, is the No. 3-ranked junior in the world in the 400. She has MSU''s fastest mark in the event this season. She also runs the third leg of MSU''s record-setting 4x400 team, which set a school-best 3:36.43 at the SEC meet.
"Our 4x400 girls have just shattered all expectations," Schmidt said, "and even then I think they''ve got a lot more in them."
Schmidt likens Muir''s progress to Olympic medalist and former MSU sprint great Falilatu Ogunkoya, whom he coached in the late 1980s. Ogunkoya holds school outdoor records in the 200 and 400.
Muir enters the NCAA meet on a hot streak, accounting for a freshman record and a relay record in her first season in Starkville. Her international experience running with Jamaica has exposed her to big events, and she hasn''t been fazed by the competition in the country''s premier conference. She proved it with improved times at the SEC meet and in the NCAA regionals.
"I train hard and I expect to run fast," Muir said. "You don''t relax at this level. It''s not really overwhelming, but I''m working hard and that brings success and rewards."
Muir''s attitude reflects the Bulldogs'' focus, as they''ve all heard their coach beam about the team''s balance and talent. Schmidt expects them to turn in MSU''s best performance since ''04, and he doesn''t believe pressure is an issue with three seniors leading the way.
"These girls are enjoying the competition and where they''re at," Schmidt said. "This is the show, and the seniors have been here before. I think the rest are feeding off those two (Aaron and Copeland). The girls are feeling excitement over pressure."
Copeland, who won a 2009 NCAA regional title with a 6.41-meter long jump, enters Eugene ranked 18th in the event. She was the runner-up at the SEC meet to the University of Florida''s Shara Proctor. The Tupelo native is keen to turn in a leap similar to last year''s regional mark. Based on this season''s NCAA seed marks, Copeland''s personal record of 6.41 would land her on the edge of medal contention. She has only jumped 6.22 this year, but Schmidt calls the long jump a "funny event" in which major shifts can take place from meet to meet.
"She''s been hitting the positions right; it''s how you hit the board and how the landing is," Schmidt said. "She had a really good jump at SECs, and I think if she just hits it the right way she has a great chance to place. Some kids have that potential, and she does. When you have that potential and you''ve done it in the past, you hit the runway knowing you have it in you."
Schmidt said Aaron, who struggled as the team''s lead heptathlon runner when Harris graduated, overcame a crashed hurdle at the second day of the SEC meet to earn a runner-up finish. It''s an obstacle she might not have cleared when the school year started, Schmidt said.
"She went nuts during the second day of SECs, and she knows now she can make it up if it comes down to it," Schmidt said. "I think with LaQuinta, in the past, she had Marrissa to feed of off. At times this year, she felt she had to perform with the pressure. It lasted through indoor, and she would cash it in mentally if she wasn''t close to the top three. In the past, that might not have happened. But what she learned during indoor she showed this outdoor season. She bounces back like a champion."
Schmidt returns to Eugene with championship memories. The former Florida State assistant coach (men and women) recruited the majority of the Seminoles'' runners and was on hand to watch FSU win the first of back-to-back women''s titles in 1984.