Bliss' Record Wins SEC Shot Put Title

by Will Stafford (@WillStaffordLSU)
Day 1 Results Day 2 Heat Sheets +0
Bliss' Record Wins SEC Shot Put Title

LEXINGTON, Ky. – One throw was all it took for Lady Tiger senior Tori Bliss to spin into history as she turned and unleashed a throw of 60 feet, 1 inch on her very first attempt of the women’s shot put competition to smash the SEC Indoor Championships meet record and capture her first career SEC title in the event in Friday’s opener at the Nutter Field House.

Perhaps the most dominant performer in women’s collegiate track and field during the 2015 indoor season, Bliss stepped into the circle as the clear favorite to take the title with an SEC-leading and school-record throw of 57-4 ¾ that was also set at the University of Kentucky at the Rod McCravy Memorial Track & Field Meet back on Jan. 24.

And she was a perfect 5-for-5 on the season while taking home the shot-put title each time she had stepped into the ring prior to Friday’s appearance at the 2015 SEC Indoor Track & Field Championships.

LSU’s SEC Champions

Her winning streak appeared under threat when Missouri’s Jill Rushin opened with a monster throw of 56-11 ½ early in the first round of the second flight to set a seasonal best of her own. Bliss responded in a big way, taking control of the competition when she uncorked the shot with a mark of 60-1 into the Nutter Field House infield to grab the top spot and lock up her first career SEC title in the event.

It was a throw also shattered the 5-year-old SEC Indoor meet record of 59-4 ¼ posted by Florida’s Mariam Kevkhishvili in 2010 and made Bliss the No. 7-ranked women’s shot putter indoors in collegiate history.

“Finally! It’s a relief more than anything,” Bliss said of her reaction to seeing a 60-foot throw pop up on the scoreboard for the first time in her career. “That’s not the first time I’ve thrown 60 feet, so I knew I could do it today. I had a warm-up at Arkansas that went 60 feet, I had one yesterday when we came here to the track that went over the 60-foot line, I had one in the warm-up today that was the same thing.

“I was just thinking, ‘I have to throw one in the competition. I can’t just keep wasting these throws like this in warm-ups and practice and whatever.’ It was just a matter of doing it when it counted the most.”

Bliss didn’t stop there as she followed with her second-best throw this season at 58-4 in the second round and a throw of 56-2 in the third round to maintain a more than three-foot lead over Rushin into the final.

Despite fouling each of her three throws in the final, Bliss felt little pressure from her competition over the final three rounds as she became the first Lady Tiger in 21 seasons to be crowned the SEC Indoor Champion in the women’s shot put since the great Danyel Mitchell in 1994. Rushin closed the gap to just over two feet with a throw of 57-9 ½ on her final attempt to score the silver medal in the event.

Tennessee’s Cassie Wertman solidified her NCAA Championship qualification with a seasonal-best throw of 56-3 ¾ in the fifth round to pick up the bronze medal as the third-place finisher behind Bliss (60-1) and Rushin (57-9 ½), while Missouri’s Kearsten Peoples followed in fourth place with a throw of 55-10 ½ and Texas A&M’s Brea Garrett rounded out the Top 5 in fifth place at 53-3 ¾.

Bliss’ victory gave the Lady Tigers their seventh SEC Indoor Championship in the women’s shot put in program history as she joined a proud lineage of past champions in the event Friday night. The senior from Portage, Indiana, added her name alongside Teresa Williford (1986, 1987), Laurie Trapp (1990) and Mitchell (1992, 1993, 1994) as LSU’s SEC Indoor Champions.

Her win also extended an impressive streak by the Lady Tigers as they have now won at least one SEC Indoor event title in 31-straight seasons dating back to their inaugural appearance at the SEC Indoor Championship in 1985 when they captured their first ever team title on their home track at the Carl Maddox Field House in Baton Rouge.

Bliss even took back the NCAA lead she held earlier this season while leapfrogging both Southern Illinois’ Raven Saunders (59-0 ¼) and Rice’s Claire Uke (58-10 ¾) for the NCAA’s No. 1 ranking for 2015.

“To actually do it when it counts at a big meet and get 10 points for the team puts me in a good place going to NCAAs in a couple of weeks,” Bliss said as she will now look ahead to challenging for the NCAA title over the next two weeks. “I still have some things to work on. Coach (Derek Yush) and I always talk. I’m very much an outdoor thrower, so to have success and have things line up right now is really exciting.”

While Bliss made the biggest splash on the night by taking home her first career SEC title in the shot put, it was sophomore Nataliyah Friar who got the ball rolling for the Lady Tigers on Friday afternoon as she claimed a career-best fourth-place SEC finish in the women’s long jump with a personal-best performance of her own in the first final of the meet.

Friar saved her best for last in the long jump final when she stepped onto the runway for her sixth and final attempt of the competition in seventh place with a best of 20-4 ¼ in the qualifying rounds.

Friar actually advanced to the final in fifth place thanks to an improved mark of 20-4 ¼ in the third round that bested her opening jump of 20-1 ½ to start the second flight. She was unable to improve in either the fourth or fifth rounds in the final with jumps of 20-1 ¾ and 19-7 ½ and slipped into seventh place with one last attempt to improve her standing and put the Lady Tigers on the scoreboard.

With one final sprint down the runway, Friar hit the board and soared 20-9 ¾ into the pit for her best jump in two seasons as a Lady Tiger, eclipsing her previous lifetime personal record of 20-8 she set indoors in 2014 in her true freshman season. It was a performance that moved Friar into fourth place as she scored the first five points of the meet for the Lady Tigers with her best career finish at the SEC Championships.

Kentucky’s duo of Sha’Keela Saunders (21-6) and Kenyattia Hackworth (21-3 ½) swept the gold and silver medals, while Georgia’s Keturah Orji (21-1 ¼) bagged the bronze medal to round out the All-SEC positions.

Not only did Friar have one final opportunity to improve her scoring position for the Lady Tigers with her sixth jump on Friday at the SEC Indoor Championships, but it was also her last chance to achieve a qualifying leap for this year’s NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships as she entered the meet ranked No. 18 nationally with a seasonal best of 20-6 ½.

And the native of Wentzville, Missouri, took a big step toward NCAA Championship qualification as she emerged as the NCAA’s No. 12-ranked long jumper this season with her career-best jump of 20-9 ¾ to take home a fourth-place finish in the event. Only the Top 16 athletes in each individual event who declare for the NCAA Championships will earn the right to compete at the national meet in two weeks.

Friar also cracked LSU’s all-time Top 10 performance list in the event for the first time in her collegiate career as she is now the 10th-ranked Lady Tiger to compete in the long jump indoors in program history.

“I wasn’t too happy with myself all through the meet because I knew where I stood, and knew it would take a lifetime PR to really move myself up in the event and also in the (NCAA) rankings,” Friar said. “Coach (Todd Lane) was just telling me, ‘you need to sprint faster, push more out of the back and your last four steps, get better.’ My last jump, literally, I didn’t think of anything, just run and jump. I basically just said to myself, you know, ‘Nataliyah, this is your last jump, so just go all out with everything you’ve got.’”

Senior Rodney Brown put the Tigers on the scoreboard for the first time at this year’s SEC Indoor Championships with an eighth-place finish in the men’s weight throw competition as he ended the event by throwing a series-best of 64-10 ½ on his sixth and final attempt to score one point for his efforts. Junior Patrick Geers threw a personal best 63-8 ¼ in the second round before taking ninth place in the final.

Led by the likes of seniors Aaron Ernest and Vernon Norwood on the men’s side and sophomore Jada Martin on the women’s side, the Tigers and Lady Tigers combined for 12 qualifiers into finals on the track during an impressive afternoon of preliminary action on the oversized track at Kentucky’s Nutter Field House.

After clocking the second-fastest time of his career at 6.68 to advance as the fifth-fastest qualifier into Saturday’s final in the men’s 60-meter dash, Ernest returned to the track and blistered the straightaway in a run of 20.67 seconds for a seasonal best in winning the third heat with the NCAA’s No. 2-ranked time this indoor season. He will be joined in the 200-meter final by sophomore teammate Tremayne Acy, who sprinted to a win in the first section with a time of 20.92 to advance to his first career SEC final with the second-fastest time of the day behind Ernest.

Ernest has returned to the site where he earned his first career All-SEC honor with a silver-medal-winning runner-up finish in the 200-meter final SEC Indoor Championships during his true freshman season in 2012.

Norwood, the 2014 SEC Indoor bronze medalist in the men’s 400-meter dash, will line up Saturday looking to win his first career SEC title in the event after taking the tape in the second qualifying heat in a time of 45.77. It will surely be a hotly-contest final as Norwood (45.77) was the third-fastest qualifier in the event behind only Texas A&M’s Bralon Taplin (45.75) and Florida’s Najee Glass (45.76).

Senior teammate Quincy Downing also earned a lane in the men’s 400-meter final when he won the seventh qualifying heat in a time of 46.50 that proved to be the seventh-fastest time on the day. Downing will make his second-straight appearance in the SEC Indoor final in the event after scoring three points for the Tigers with a sixth-place finish in the event a year ago.

While just missing out on a spot in the final, junior Cyril Grayson followed his teammates by racing to an indoor PR of 46.93 for 12th place overall in the qualifying round of the men’s 400-meter dash on Friday.

Two Tigers will also feature in the final of the men’s 60-meter hurdles after senior Joshua Thompson won his heat with the third-fastest time of the day at 7.77 and sophomore Jordan Moore finished in eighth place for the qualifying round with a time of 7.88. Thompson is making his second career SEC Indoor finals appearance, while Moore has qualified for the first time in his SEC Indoor Championships debut.

Like Ernest, Martin is set to line up in the finals of both short sprints in Saturday’s finale while setting the pace for the Lady Tigers with qualifying performances in both the 60-meter and 200-meter dashes. Martin raced to a personal best of 7.32 to finish runner-up in her heat and sixth overall in the 60 meters before winning her section with the fourth-fastest time of the day at 23.34 in the 200 meters.

Two Lady Tigers look to score big points for the team in the 800-meter final while qualifying for their first career SEC Indoor final in the event as sophomore Morgan Schuetz stormed to victory in her heat with a run of 2 minutes, 6.72 seconds for the second-fastest time of the day and junior Andria Aguilar clocked 2:08.65 for third place in her heat and sixth place overall in Friday’s qualifying.

Also making the most of her SEC Championships debut was Lady Tiger freshman Daeshon Gordon, who smashed her personal best in the 60-meter hurdles with a run of 8.23 to qualify for the final with the fifth-fastest time of the afternoon, eclipsing her previous PR of 8.30 set in winning her first collegiate title at the Razorback Invitational on Jan. 31.

Saturday’s finale at the 2015 SEC Indoor Track & Field Championship is set to get underway at 10:30 a.m. CT with the field events followed by the first finals on the track beginning at 1 p.m. Fans can watch the Tigers and Lady Tigers in action as the SEC Network+ will broadcast live coverage of Saturday’s events from 12:50-5:30 p.m. CT online at Coverage of the final day of the championship is also available with the WatchESPN app available to fans on their smartphones and tablet devices.