CINCINNATI -- One of the enduring truisms in sports is that it’s more difficult to repeat as a champion than it is to win the first time.
But that definitely was not the case for the University of Cincinnati women’s track and field team, which last weekend won its second straight American Athletic Conference outdoor championship at the conference meet in Houston.
Not only did the Bearcats win the conference team title for the second straight year, they won it by a wider margin than they did last year in Orlando.
The Bearcats won seven of the 21 events to total 138 points and posted the largest margin of victory in the brief, four-year history of the event. That certainly doesn’t mean it was easy, but it’s a strong indication of their dominance.
“Last year, some people were really overwhelmed at the prospect of winning our first title,” said Susan Seaton, UC’s director of track and field and cross country. “Some people got a little nervous. I think this year, we knew that if we just keep doing what we’ve done and get personal bests, we will pull this off. I think they had more confidence this year and they had more experience on how to win a title.
“Last year, we were the big favorites and then we were nervous. Some people performed out of their minds, but some of the favorites couldn’t get it together and we kind of messed up a little bit. But we still pulled it off because we were just really that good.”
The Bearcats were favored again this year and had little trouble living up to the expectations, getting individual titles from Loretta Blaut (high jump), Annette Echikunwoke (hammer and shot put), Bryana Robinson (400m dash), and Naomi Urbano (hepathlon). They also won the 4x100m relay and the 4x400m relay.
“We had one of those meets where almost everything goes right,” Seaton said. “That’s very rare.”
Seaton knew that things were really going the Bearcats’ way when the 4x100 relay team beat Houston in the first running event on the final of three days’ of competition. The hero was freshman Tiona Lattimore, who ran the anchor and blew past Houston anchor Samiyah Samuels at the finish line.
The Bearcats had already scored points in the field events that day and were ahead of all of their projections, so they were already feeling good about their chances of repeating. But, when the 4x100m team knocked off the Cougars, it lit up the entire UC team. Not only did the Bearcats win the event, they did do with a school-record time of 44.33.
The other members of the relay team were Robinson, Haisha Bisiolu, and Kellsa Mbah.
“We didn’t have a single person in the 100m finals,” Seaton said. “For them to go out there and beat a team that had four people in the finals – and go out and just take it to them and beat them - that really just got the team going. Everybody was going crazy when a freshman (Lattimore) just nipped the Houston girl at the line. That really shut down Houston. They were like, oh my god, they’ve got us.”
Lattimore, who finished sixth in the 400m dash, was one of the best individual stories to come out of the meet. She’s a graduate of Hughes High School, just across the street from the UC campus.
“She had an unbelievable meet for a freshman,” Seaton said. “She had just an insane meet. She qualified for the 200m and the 400m. She set freshman records in both of those events. She ran a really strong leg in the 4x400m, but, more importantly she won that 4x100m because she got the stick about five meters back and she was our anchor. She just ran that Houston girl down. And she beat that girl on the last two steps because she just raced through the line and just kept on running. We knew she was good, but she just killed it out there.”
Getting across the street from Hughes to UC is a short distance, but for Lattimore, it was a long journey due to academic challenges. She succeeded thanks to her own determination and a joint effort by Jolinda (Lewis) Miller, the athletic director at Hughes; UC assistant coach Chris Wineberg; and the academic support staff at UC. Miller is a former UC basketball player and a member of UC’s James P. Kelly Athletics Hall of Fame.
“Coach Wineberg kept telling (Lattimore), ‘just get over here and it will be good,’” Seaton said. “It wasn’t all just smooth sailing. Our academic staff did a great job getting her in the summer bridge program, getting her some help in making the adjustment from high school to college. Ever since, she’s just been phenomenal.
“She’s doing well at school. The whole team is in love with that girl. You couldn’t ask for a better freshman year so far. She always has a smile on her face and she works so hard.”
The championship was the fifth team title for UC since the inception of the AAC in 2013. The Bearcats shared the men’s basketball regular-season title in 2014 and won a football co-championship, also in 2014. The women’s soccer team won the conference tournament championship in 2015.
Those were all in team sports. Track is considered more of an individual sport, but at UC, Seaton does her best to foster a team concept as well. That spirit of camaraderie was on full display last weekend in Houston.
“It’s very difficult to get all these individual people to work together as a team because they’re not passing the ball to each other like they do in a team sport,” Seaton said, “But, we talk to each other all year about how important it is to support each other so that every time a Bearcat looks at another Bearcat they see them give a full effort, have composure and be competitive. People cheer each other on because it’s hard to keep it up for three long days. So we talk about the ‘we’ and not the ‘me’.
“If your event doesn’t go exactly as you planned, you’ve got to get yourself back together and then your next job is to go and support your teammates. We have a saying that we keep fighting until the last Bearcat crosses the finish line. We’ve got to just keep our composure and keep fighting as a team.”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January, 2015.