40 in 40 - 4x400 Squad Dominates the MAC
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, wmubroncos.com takes a look at 40 key moments/females in the history of women's athletics at Western Michigan University. Though the selection process, an effort was made to highlight a moment and player/coach from each of our current women's sports programs, as well pay respect to our women's legacy sports. A different feature will be released each of the 40 days, July 24 through Sept. 1.
4x400 Squad, 2001-current
Famous names like Kayla Skelly, Maria Shoup, Maggie Lille-Smith, Jill Stamison and many others helped put the Western Michigan women's track and field program on the map. But at the turn of the century, it was the 4x400 meter relay that pushed the program to regional and national attention.
Current head coach Kelly Lycan took over the program for the 2001 season. Lycan, who himself was a sprinter while at Bowling Green, had developed a reputation for coaching great sprinters and relay teams while at Arkansas and Ball State. He was taking over a program that had slipped, not winning an individual MAC Championship since 1998.
"When I got to WMU there were some good 400 runners here with Heather Johnson, Krisy Mahome, Devron Kennedy and Janaule Bennett," said Lycan. "That first year we broke the school record running around 3:45 and we finished third. I thought it was slow and they had a lot more in them but it was something we could build on."
The following year is when things really got going with the 4x400 squad. Johnson broke the individual event MAC Championship drought by winning the 400 meter dash at the 2002 Outdoor MAC Championship. The following year the Broncos would finish first and second in the 400 with Mahome besting Johnson and, of course, WMU won its first 4x400 outdoor MAC title since 1985. Johnson, Kennedy, Mahome and Kendra Lockett combined to run a time of 3:39.61. The team ended up at the NCAA Championships, finishing 13th in the nation after running a time of 3:37.49, almost 10 seconds off the record they broke two years prior.
With the ball now rolling in the program and with the 4x400 squad, coach Lycan had to deal with something every collegiate coach does, attrition.
"Heather and Devron graduated and it's like, now what do we do?"
The answers were Sheriese Lucas and Shayna Sagnster. The two were plugged in as freshmen and the Broncos didn't skip a beat. Sangster, Bennett, Lucas and Mahome combined for the outdoor 4x400 MAC title in 2004, but attrition would rear its ugly head and Bennett was now leaving.
The next answer? Becky Horn.
"The first thing you need in a 400 relay runner is fearlessness," said Lycan. "They have to be able to push themselves to the limit because ther is a lot of pain involved in running a good relay. It takes a lot out of you. Becky wasn't there yet as a freshman but she grew in to that great anchor leg runner."
Horn's impact was evident as she combined with Lucas, Mahome, and Sangster to win WMU's first 4x400 indoor MAC Title since 1996 in 2005. The squad pulled the double that year, also winning at the Outdoor MAC Championship.
Mahome finished up her career and Joy Eloms slotted in to the squad in 2006, helping WMU win an indoor relay title. In 2007 the Broncos began to separate themselves from the MAC, the other programs in Michigan, including Michigan and Michigan State, and even the Midwest.
The team won MAC titles in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 but 2008 was the banner year for the 4x400 team.
After winning the 4x400 MAC title in 2008 the team sat 14th in the nation during the indoor season, needing to finish in the top 12 to move on to the NCAA Championship. What is typically referred to as a "Last Chance" meet, was WMU's chance to make the NCAA's. The Broncos headed to Notre Dame and came back making history.
Victoria Chatman, a freshman, along with Danielle Brown and Jennifer Sabra and Horn were determined to make the NCAA Championships. Brown led off the race and was trailing some of the bigger-named schools like Arkansas, Miami and Ole Miss because they loaded up their best runners up front. Lycan stuck with the same lineup he had all season. Brown ran a steady leg and then handed it off to Sabra, who closed the gap a little to get WMU in to fourth place. Then the rookie took over, running like a poised veteran, as Chatman pushed past a runner from Ole Miss in to third before handing it off to Horn. Horn gained ground on every stride and then zigzagged through Miami and Arkansas to win the race.
The Broncos finished the race with a time of 3:36.08, crushing the school record by over two seconds and crushing the MAC record as well. Mission accomplished getting in to the NCAA Championship, as after that weekend WMU had the fourth fastest time in the nation.
WMU missed out on finishing in the top eight to be named All-Americans but the ground work was laid. The sprinters on the team all wanted to be part of the 4x400 team, getting to compete at the NCAA Championships year after year, the Drake Relays, the Mt. SAC Relays and other prestigious races across the country.
It all paid off in 2012. The veteran Chatman led a team of youngsters to the coveted All-American status. Chatman, along with Iris Campbell, Andrea Arnold and Leya Munwam combined to take 14th overall at the 2012 Outdoor NCAA Championships and were named Second Team All-Americans. The Broncos ran a blistering time of 3:34.83.
All the opportunity and success that the Broncos have had, eight outdoor titles and six indoor titles in 12 seasons, wasn't available when Lycan was competing back at Bowling Green in the late 1970's and early 80's.
"I grew up back when sports were women were just basically intramural," explained Lycan. "They barely had varsity sports at the high school level. A lot of times you think those days were ancient history but they really weren't that long ago."
"Some of my good friends on the Bowling Green women's track and cross country teams were so excited to be able to compete at their first MAC Championships back in 1980. Now I look at these great student-athletes we have now and some of their moms were great athletes too but they never got a chance to compete."
"They are great competitors and great students of their sport and do a good job of trying to learn the history. It is nice to see them have an appreciate for those who came before them like Maria Shoup and Kayla Skelly. Hopefully we make them proud when they see where we finish as we try to carry on what they started."