MSU women win Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championship
MSU senior track star Leah O'Connor ran down the homestretch of the 5,000 meter finals at the 2015 Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships on Sunday, and the hometown crowd at Ralph Young Field rose to its feet and roared.
They'd seen and heard a lot from her this weekend.
As O'Connor crossed the finish line and won the race in a time of 16:03.98, that was it.
She'd done it.
Incredibly, O'Connor had taken the Big Ten title in three separate events during the weekend — the 3,000 meter steeplechase in 9:51.38 on Saturday night, the 1,500 meter title in 4:14.19 on Sunday afternoon, and the 5,000 meter championship a few hours after that.
When it was all said and done, O'Connor had raced a total of 11,000 meters and scored 30 points — helping the MSU women's team to the 2015 Big Ten Track and Field Championship along the way. The Spartan women finished the weekend with a total of 128 points — 31 more than second place Nebraska (97).
"I didn't know if I could win that," O'Connor said after the 5,000. "With about four laps to go in (the 5,000), I was like 'ooh, this kind of hurts.' But you think about the team and think about your desire to just help out as much as possible and see how tough you can be ... that's what this sport is all about."
After she crossed the finish line on her home track for the final time in her career, she turned and embraced teammate and training partner Rachele Schulist. Schulist — who placed fourth in the 1,500 meters just hours before — placed second in the 5,000.
At some point during the two of them being swarmed by a flock of media and photographers, their coach, MSU Director of Cross Country/Track & Field Walt Drenth, walked across the infield to congratulate his one-two punch of distance stars.
"That's it," he told them. "We won ... nobody can catch us."
A look of joy spread across the tired girls' faces. Despite there being one event to go — the women's 4X400 meter relay — O'Connor and Schulist had solidified a big enough lead to clinch the title for the MSU women.
"We're a family and this is what we came to do. To be able to help ... this ... wow," said O'Connor, at a bit of a loss for words to be able to win the Big Ten title at MSU's home track.
What O'Connor did this weekend had never been done before. And anyone who bared witness to what she was able to accomplish came away amazed, including her coach.
"She's going to be a world class athlete at some point," Drenth said. "You just see that sort of thing coming ... an amazing performance, fearless, it's really hard to do ... once she set her mind to it, it's going to be hard for her to lose."
For O'Connor, she couldn't talk long about her weekend's achievements before mentioning and thanking the teammate who ran along side her for a good part of the 5,000 meters.
"This is my girl," she said, motioning toward Schulist. "She's got a huge career ahead of her and she's helped me so much. There's no chance I could have done this weekend strength-wise if it wasn't for the girl right next to me right now. She's totally made me a better athlete and a better person. I'm very thankful."
And the sophomore Schulist -- who as O'Connor mentioned has a bright future ahead of her — said she hopes she can follow in the same kind of footsteps as her teammate.
"Honestly, I have the best role model," Schulist said of O'Connor. "(I hope to) just be humble-hearted and just be strong and keep striving for excellence and just do the best I can. And whatever that means — trusting Coach Drenth whole-heartedly and the team — so where ever that takes me."
But it wasn't just O'Connor and the distance squad responsible for the win. It was a total team effort.
And when Drenth, O'Connor and the rest of the team say that, they mean it. Contributions came from all over this weekend, from the pole vault on day one, to the relays and sprints on day three.
To name only a few names, there was freshman thrower Katelyn Daniels, who set a new school and meet record in winning the women's discus, and even senior sprinter Jellisa Westney, who placed second in the women's 100 meter dash and took part in successful 4X100 and 4X400 relay teams, which placed third and fourth respectively.
Senior Tori Franklin was another one, who despite finishing a disappointing fifth in the triple jump, came back and helped out on a pair of relay teams. And when the team ultimately hoisted the trophy, she said the team title more than makes up for not meeting expectations in the triple jump.
"I'm so happy," Franklin said. "I've shed a lot of tears ... we never even come close to winning (the Big Ten) and this year we really worked hard and we've been planning for it for the last two years and we finally did it ... it's just an amazing feeling."
As the weekend came to a close and Drenth received the stereotypical Gatorade bath from his team, he couldn't help but smile.
They'd done it.
"It's hard to say," Drenth said when asked what he was feeling. "We had a vision for them at the end. I told them I wanted them to just see what they are at their best. I said 'let the outcome be the outcome.' They've learned and grown all year and to see this ... it was a total team effort and it was just a blast."