UCF Track and Field 2009 Season Preview

Jan. 14, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. (www.ucfathletics.com) - Head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert left little doubt in her first season at UCF of the type of program she would build at UCF. The impact was impressive and immediate, with UCF breaking 23 school records and with a third-place finish notched its highest finish at the Conference USA Outdoor Championships. The Knights also had five athletes earn all-conference honors while Lizzie Harris garnered NCAA Indoor All-American accolades.

"The first year was very exciting," said Smith Gilbert. "We came a long way throughout the season, which culminated with the third-place finish at the C-USA Outdoor Championships. I saw them start to believe in themselves, and each meet they had more and more confidence about their performances. As we broke school records and they improved on personal bests each meet, their confidence grew and that showed at the outdoor conference meet."

The Knights had so much success so fast after Smith Gilbert arrived, but the coach said she was not surprised, and points to the great student-athletes that were already on campus when she arrived.

"I was not surprised with the success," said Smith Gilbert. "I have always said that the team we had in place when I arrived was a very good team. The thing that they had to work on the most was confidence and believing in themselves. I knew they were destined for greatness, and I always pushed them to achieve more than they thought they could. I believe it paid off in the end."

So with year one in the books, Smith Gilbert and the Knights look toward year two with greater expectations and higher goals.

The Knights return a number of contributors to the 2008 record-breaking season, including eight athletes who broke school records a season ago.

Four of the team's eight seniors - Shantile Blackburn, Sheree Carter, Kelly McNeil and Dione Thomas - were part of at least one broken record in 2008.

Blackburn, Carter and Thomas join sophomores Lizzie Harris and Micaela Wimberly as returning Knights that were All-Conference USA performers.

Smith Gilbert seems to like what she has seen from the group of returners in offseason workouts and practices, and expects to see even more success in 2009. "Based on how they have been practicing, they should all improve on their performances from a season ago," said the second-year head coach. "They have matured very well over the last year, and they have become students of their events."

The Knights must replace a group of seven seniors who enjoyed considerable success as UCF student-athletes.

A talented crop of newcomers, to say the least, is added to the roster in 2009. Smith Gilbert welcomes 10 freshmen and a junior college transfer to campus, and the Knights will also get the services of Miami (Fla.) transfer Tiki James after she sat out as a redshirt last season.

"We added some great recruits from the state of Florida and the rest of the country, including a national record holder, state champions and junior college champions," said Smith Gilbert. "We added some impressive talent to go with what we already had in place."

Among the newcomers, junior college transfer Kelsey Poljansek won NJCAA championships in both the indoor and outdoor shot put as well as the discus while at Cowley County Community College (Kan.).

Freshman Jackie Coward, who was coached by Sanders at Knoxville West, was a 12-time state champion sprinter and hurdler. Her best time in the 100-meter hurdles ranked number one in the nation according to the Track and Field News rankings.

Freshmen Aisha Maree-Frazier, Brittany Long, Sheila Paul and Zakeya Stinson all come to UCF after claiming at least one state championship as high school standouts. With all of that incoming talent, its no surprise that Smith Gilbert does not single any one newcomer out as the one who will have the biggest impact during their freshman campaign.

"They will all impact our team immediately," said Smith Gilbert. "You never know who will do so more than others, but they are all very diverse in that they do many different events and we are just glad they all chose to be Knights."

With all of the new and returning talent in the mix, the team's expectations have risen.

"I expect again to set personal bests and school records each week," said Smith Gilbert. "I expect people to qualify for nationals and to field a bigger team at the national meet, both indoor and outdoor. Above all I expect to be the best we can be at all times, 100 percent."

The expectations have risen, but what does Smith Gilbert see as the tangible goals for the Knights in 2009.

"We have seen great strides being made at practice and everyone has a heightened sense of awareness of the expectations," she said. "I would like to be among the top three at the Conference USA indoor and outdoor championships. I would like to see our team score some points at the national championships, both indoor and outdoor."

To prepare for the conference and national meets in both the indoor and outdoor season, the Knights will compete in some of the best meets in not only the region but the country.

The indoor slate includes meets at Kentucky, Florida, Penn State, Arkansas and North Carolina while the outdoor slate includes meets at Florida and Miami along with trips to Philadelphia and San Diego for the Penn Relays Carnival and the UC San Diego and United States Olympic Committee Invitational respectively.

UCF will also show off its own facilities on three different occasions this spring, hosting the Black & Gold Challenge on Mar. 21, the UCF Invitational on Mar. 27-28 and the UCF Twilight on May 9.

If season one was an indication, head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert has the UCF track and field program headed in the right direction.

The Knights have set high expectations for themselves in 2009, but with a talented mix of newcomers and returning athletes, UCF has every intention of meeting and exceeding them.

The Knights will get their 2009 indoor season underway this weekend, competing in the Kentucky Invitational in Lexington, Ky., on Friday and Saturday.

For the latest news on the Knights, log on to www.UCFAthletics.com - the official site for UCF varsity sports. The site, which also contains ticket and Golden Knights Club donor information, is also the home of UCF's new online apparel store. Also visit www.UCFPhotos.com, the exclusive fan source for UCF action sports pictures.