After a successful season to date, the South Carolina track and field team will head to College Station, Texas, looking to make some noise at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
The Gamecocks will send four individuals, two men and two women, and one women's relay team to the meet that starts on March 10. Of course, a couple of milliseconds can mean the difference between first and fourth place, but all four of the individuals as well as the relay team have high expectations entering the meet.
Triple jumper Natasha Dicks, long jumper Rougui Sow and the 4x400-meter relay team will represent the Gamecocks on the women's side while shot putter Josh Awotunde and 200-meter sprinter Ncincilili Titi represent the Gamecocks in the men's competition.
Head coach Curtis Frye and his staff saw Awotunde when he was a state championship-winning high school quarterback in New Jersey and were impressed with his raw ability. In addition, athletes that play other team sports are attractive to Frye because he knows those kind of individuals will come into college with a team mentality.
The Gamecock staff has been able to develop Awotunde into a national title contender in the shot put.
"(He) was kind of a risk that we developed," Frye said. "Coach (Assistant coach Mike) Sergent and the weight room developed him during his redshirt year, and during that redshirt year he threw some and qualified for the junior nationals and made the finals. He caught up to some of the people who were ahead of him."
Awotunde enters the championships ranked 11th nationally in the shot put and it will be his first experience at the indoor event. He placed seventh to earn All-American honors at the NCAA Outdoor Championships last year. His experience as a high school quarterback has helped Awotunde develop into the athlete he is now.
"It prepared me for a lot of the situations I'm going through now," Awotunde said. "Being a high school quarterback, every day holding my teammates accountable and making sure everyone was doing the right thing all the time. It was tough, but we did a good job."
Dicks will head back to NCAA Indoors looking to improve upon last year's third-place finish at the event. The senior finished on the podium in every regular-season meet she participated in this year, and has an immense amount of ability.
Frye said that there may only be one other triple jumper in the country that can go from takeoff to landing farther than Dicks. The key is getting her not to foul and have a jump that can be scored.
"She is either going to get it big, or not get it," Frye said. "And you don't want to take that away from an athlete. She's all out to go get the big one. We're trying to get her coached to the point where you're consistent enough that you don't foul on the big ones."
Last year's NCAA Indoor Championships were a whirlwind for Dicks because it was her first experience. She didn't realize the impact of the event until after it's over. This time, she enters the event with a goal to win it all.
"People say 'be realistic,' well if you believe in yourself and put in the effort, everything is real," Dicks said.
Sow is coming off a fifth-place finish at the SEC Championships in the long jump, and hopes to build off that performance. Sow is in a unique position as the France native has been with the Gamecocks for only about six months, so she's still getting adjusted to things. However, as her performances so far this season indicate, she has the potential to fight for a top-eight spot and a first team All-American nod.
"Rougui is not going to beat herself," Frye said. "She's going to hit the board, she's technically sound, so if she's on and the weight room is working, then we may get two or three inches (on her distance). That makes a big difference."
If Dicks, Sow and the relay team do what they're capable of out in Texas, the South Carolina women's squad can post a top 25 team finish, according to Frye.
Currently, Titi holds the ninth-fastest 200-meter time in the country, which puts him just off the pace to be a first team All-American. His only disappointing meet this season came recently in the SEC Championships, and the time between that event and the NCAA Indoor Championships has been spent trying to get Titi back on track.
"We have to get his confidence back up," Frye said. "But he's good enough to be top eight."
The women's 4x400-meter relay team has all the talent in the world, but things are a little uncertain right now because of injuries. Aliyah Abrams, Precious Holmes, Tyler Brockington and Briana Haith are the listed members of the relay team, but Haith and Abrams are questionable for the indoor meet.
If the Gamecocks are healthy, they have the potential to at least get a top-four finish.
Regardless, South Carolina is in a great position to make a strong impact in College Station before the outdoor season begins later this month.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo provided by South Carolina Athletics Media Relations**