Posted: Jun 04, 2019
By Bill Sheehan
The Cal State Fullerton track and field team's footprint has grown.
After winning Big West titles in the past three years, the Titans are trying to make an impact at the national level. For the first time in recent memory, Fullerton is sending multiple competitors to the NCAA Division 1 Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The four-day event, which begins Wednesday, is being held at the University of Texas' Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin.
"I'm super-proud of our student-athletes," said John Elders, head coach of the Titan men's and women's teams. "There have been different qualifying standards over the years, and this is the first time we have had multiple qualifiers in the current East-West preliminaries format. It's pretty unprecedented."
The men's team won its first Big West Conference men's championship in 2017 and followed that with another title in 2018 and a second-place this season. The women's team broke through in May, capturing its first conference crown.
Elders, who was named the 2019 Big West Conference Women's Coach of the Year, traces the program's resurgence to the full funding of track and field scholarships as part of the 2015 Student Success Initiative.
"Initially, when we got the increase in scholarships, our goal was to compete for the conference championship," said Elders, who has guided the teams for 31 years.
"We have attained that in the last three years and have started to attract higher-caliber athletes. Now we are trying to be more competitive at the national level."
Here's a look at the NCAA-bound Titans:
WOMEN'S 800 METERS
Excitement and relief for Huerta
At the NCAA West Preliminaries in Sacramento in May, Samantha Huerta finished fourth in her 800-meter heat with a personal best time of 2:03.96. Huerta then had to sweat out the final heat to see if her time would hold up and ensure her a spot among the 12 West runners who would advance to the NCAA finals.
"The girls in the last heat were going crazy fast. But when saw a Q next to my name on the scoreboard afterward, the amount of excitement and relief that ran through me was beyond words," said Huerta, a junior from La Mirada.
Huerta has produced an amazing body of work at Fullerton. She holds school records in the indoor mile (4:47.50), the outdoor 800 (2:03.96), 1,500 (4:18.39), mile (4:46.77) as well as in the cross-country 5K and 6K and distance medley relay.
The 21-year-old was a double-winner in this season's Big West championships, topping the field in the 800 and 1,500, and was named the conference's Woman Track Athlete of the Year. But Huerta said the team's Big West victory and her NCAA-qualifying effort have been the best moments of her season.
"It's so exciting to be part of this program and the amount of progress we have made. When I first got here, we were trying not to get last in cross country and track. When we finished second in the Big West cross-country finals last fall, that made us more eager to win the track championship," said Huerta, who is majoring in kinesiology.
Elders, who coaches the school's middle- and long-distance runners, said Huerta has been an anchor for the women's track and cross-country programs. "She was one of the first elite high school girls to be attracted to Fullerton. In that sense, she gave our program instant credibility. She is such a great young lady who is popular with her teammates."
Huerta isn't a runner who depends on her finishing kick, Elders said. "She has a lot of range and is very versatile. She has speed, but more importantly she is super-strong and very tenacious. She runs fast by being able to maintain a fast pace."
Huerta, who is ranked ninth in the West and 16th nationally, has been dealing with a mild allergy-like condition in the past week. But she said her training, stretching and hydrating have been going well.
A group of family, friends and neighbors began supporting Huerta while she was in high school, driving her to meets and helping her prepare for competitions. "Team Samantha" is still in force, and Huerta said was overwhelmed with congratulatory texts, emails and phone calls after she qualified for the NCAA finals.
"I have such a great support system. I've been blessed to have so many amazing people in my life. God has blessed me in so many ways," she said.
"Our cross-country team drove to Sacramento to watch me race in the prelims. They were all waiting for me when I came out of the officials' tent at the end. I had tears in my eyes, but I held back. I told myself, 'You don't get to cry until after your last race as a senior. You are a strong woman and you're moving on to the NCAAs.' "
Samantha Huerta. Credit Kirby Lee
WOMEN'S HIGH JUMP
Qualifying for NCAA 'surreal' for Hamm
For Iesha Hamm, the reality that she is an NCAA qualifier is still sinking in.
"It's pretty cool, but it really hasn't quite set in that I'm going. It seems so surreal. I'm sure I will have more emotions when I get there and soak up the atmosphere," she said.
Twice during the prelims, the 5-foot-11 sophomore from Bakersfield had to clear the bar on third attempts to secure a spot at the NCAA meet. Her final jump of 5 feet 10.75 inches, or 1.80 meters, left her tied for sixth in the West. She is ranked 16 nationally.
"My teammates were very proud. They were saying, 'Oh my gosh. I'll get to watch you on TV. I'm going to record it," said Hamm, a sophomore majoring in communications.
Hamm jumped a personal best of 5 feet 11.25 inches (1.81 meters) to win the Big West title. She has struggled with a chronic foot problem all season and plans to have surgery after the NCAAs.
"My legs are tired, so we have been cutting some training down. I haven't been taking as many practice jumps. We've spent time working on my technical skills, including my over-the-bar technique," said the 19-year-old.
"We've kept it light. We've spent time on approaches, bar work and light running," said assistant track coach Cortney Stafford. "The main thing is for her to stay focused."
"Ieasha is the first NCAA qualifier I have coached," said Stafford, who is in her fourth year overseeing jumps and combined events. "I'm very proud of her and really excited."
Stafford was especially pleased that Hamm maintained her consistency at the West prelims. "She needed to reach the 180-meter mark to get to the NCAA championships, and she accomplished that."
"The NCAA experience will benefit her in the long run. The tough competition will help prepare her mentally for next season and beyond."
Hamm said Stafford gave her a simple bit of advice. "Coach Stafford said I should have fun in Texas and that I have nothing to lose," she said.
Iesha Hamm. Credit Kirby Lee
MEN'S 4X400-METER RELAY
Marcel Espinoza, who anchors the Titan 4x400-meter relay team, said his adrenaline starts pumping as soon as the starting gun is fired.
"As I watch the first, second and third legs go, I get energized. Then it's really all on me. I have to do it for myself, but I have to do it for the others too. It gives me that extra boost of energy, and I can go just crazy," said Espinoza, a junior from Santa Monica and the team's veteran leader.
Espinoza and his 4x400 teammates – Parris Samaniego, Rasaun House and Chris Shiley – ran a school-record 3:05:16 at the NCAA West prelims. They shattered the old mark by roughly 3 seconds, and Espinoza closed with a scorching 44.90 leg. The quartet ranks fifth in the West and 11th nationally.
Marques Barosso, who is in his fifth year as an assistant coach in charge of sprinters, hurdlers and relays, said the team's hard work is paying off. "They're hungry and have something to prove. We're not surprised about the team's showing at the prelims because we know how talented we are, and we know the work we're putting in is going to get us where we are supposed to be."
"The first leg is the most important leg. That's going to put you into the race or out of the race. That's a lot of pressure on a freshman, but Parris likes the pressure. Rasaun likes to chase and go get it. Chris's job is to maintain our position. And Marcel hopefully will bring it home."
Samaniego aims to put team in the front
Samaniego, 19, is from Murietta, where he ran on a high school 4x400 relay team with world class quarter-miler Michael Powell. "I'm super-excited and stoked, just happy to be part of the team," said Samaniego. "I'm very comfortable leading off. I'm not out there to break a world record. I'm trying to put us in the race in the one, two or three position."
"We've been working out since July. Now is the time to show off what we've been doing," said Samaniego, who has a personal best in the 400 of 47.01. He also has competed in the 200 and 400 and has occasionally run in the 4x100 relay.
The first-year Titan has the mental makeup of a senior or a professional runner, said Barosso. "Parris comes in every day ready to work. Soon people don't like the pressure -- he does. As soon as the lights come on, he shines brighter. Parris' attitude is, 'This is my stage. Let's go!' He's been pushing Marcel in practice, which is really helpful for both of them."
A criminal justice major, Samaniego said the chance to work with Barosso was a key reason he chose to attend Fullerton. "I never really knew Fullerton had a track team," he said. "But when [Rasaun] House signed, I thought, 'OK, Fullerton must be doing something right.' After my mother and I sat down with Coach B, we both agreed he was going to be the best coach for me."
Samaniego joked that he can describe the team's strategy in four words: 'Run fast, turn left."
Parris Samaniego. Credit Matt Brown
A more confident House loves to compete
Rasuan House, who runs the second leg for the Titans, competed last year's NCAA finals as a member of the 4x100 relay team. He said that experience should help him in Austin.
"Last year, I froze in the moment. I'm more confident this year," said House, a sophomore from Perris. "A lot of people may underestimate us because we are a smaller school. My teammates and I have worked so hard for this. We are always there to compete and run with the bigger schools."
House competed in the 100 and 200 this season and was a member of the Big West champion 4x100 relay team. He has a career best of 49.0 in the 400 meters but skipped the event this year.
"It doesn't matter which race I'm in – I just love to compete," said House, 20, who is a criminal justice major. "It's important to trust what we have been taught over the course of the season, trust what the coach has instilled in us and go from there."
"Rasaun has been a staple for our sprints program," said Barosso. "He always scores points and is a big part of our success. He sets an example with his hard work and has been a role model for our younger guys."
Rasaun House. Credit Kirby Lee
Shiley is the new kid on the block
A mid-year transfer from Riverside Community College, Chris Shiley jumped in and manned the third leg on the relay team.
"We came off a hot race at the NCAA prelims," said Shiley, 20. "We are so much more motivated in training because we know what we are working for. It's cool being a small school going into the big-dog league.
A junior from Highland, Shiley also competed in the 200 and 400 for the Titans. He has a personal best of 47.4 in the 400.
"We knew he would be a big part of our team," said Barosso. "He wants to work hard and get to the next level. He was overlooked at the community college, so he feels he has something to prove."
Shiley, a business administration major, said he feels more at home after becoming acclimated to Fullerton. "It's been a big change for me. It's been a lot of fun to experience our team's success with the guys here."
Chris Shiley. Credit Kirby Lee
Espinoza says 4x400 team in a better spot
Marcel Espinoza also was on the last year's NCAA-qualifying 4x100 relay team. And he said the 4x400 team is better poised for success.
"We're in a much more comfortable spot than we were last year. We were seeded among the last five teams a year ago. Now we are in the top 12," said Espinoza, who is a communications major.
Espinoza clocked an impressive 45.87 to win the Big West 400 meters championship, becoming only the second conference meet winner to go under 46 seconds. He also was part of the conference champion 4x100 relay team and was named the Big West Men's Track Athlete of the Year.
"Marcel has put it all together this year," said Barosso. "He's right where he is supposed to be."
The 21-year-old has worked with Barosso for three years. "It's been great. I understand what he wants me to do and I execute it," said Espinoza, who also competed in the 200.
Mason Rollins, a fifth-year senior from Bakersfield, is traveling to Austin as a relay team alternate. The 22-year-old, who received a communications degree last month, was the Big West 100 champion and also won a conference title with the 4x100 relay team.
"They are going to go out there in Austin and break the school record again," said Rollins.
Marcel Espinoza. Credit Kirby Lee