March 13, 2014
Southern Miss track and field head coach Kevin Stephen believes every standout student athlete should have the "trifecta." This trifecta includes three parts: excellence in the classroom, strong performance nationally on the track, and character that helps formulate a team's chemistry.
The track program, which opens its outdoor season this Saturday in its own invitational, has had a few trifecta athletes in recent years, which has led to great success--both on the track and in the classroom. Southern Miss is coming off three straight superb years, highlighted by two-time national champion long jumper Torie Bowie, triple jumper Ganna Demydova, and men's javelin thrower Kyle Smith.
In 2011, then junior Torie Bowie won two NCAA long jump championships, both indoor and outdoor. Bowie also set the school record with a jump of 21'9.50" and earned the Conference-USA Field Athlete of the Year award.
The following spring, Ganna Demydova won the triple jump national title at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Champions with a school-and-meet record mark of 14.20m.
Combined with Bowie, Demydova captured the Golden Eagles' third national title in track and field in the last three years. For her performance, Demydova garnered her second-straight USTCCCA first team All-America honor.
In a recent interview with coach Stephen, he shared high praise for Demydova.
"Ganna Demydova is probably the best athlete we have ever brought in to Southern Miss," said Stephen. "She came in already outstanding and after coming here, she improved in the triple jump and broke the NCAA record, which still stands today."
On the men's team, Kyle Smith overcame great adversity last year to win the C-USA championship and advance to the NCAA championship in men's javelin. Coach Stephen shared a riveting story of Smith's ability to beat the odds.
"Kyle Smith last year was an incredible story. Not only did he have Tommy John surgery, but also the time of his surgery was such that he should not have been able to compete his final year," explained coach Stephen. "Once we found out that we weren't going to get a redshirt, Kyle made up his mind that he was going to fast track his rehab. With the help of our athletic trainers, he got to the point where he was prepared.
"He then went on to throw a personal best and win the Conference-USA championship," continued Stephen. "He developed a groin injury, so he didn't do well at the NCAA championship, but he came back with an extremely strong performance at the U.S. trials--finishing sixth overall and beat a couple past Olympians. He had the third best throw of anyone in the country."
Coach Stephen, in particular, is proud of the recent success on the track, which he says really begins in the recruiting process.
"It begins with the recruiting process in bringing in the right type of athlete," explained Stephen. "That doesn't necessarily mean a person who has achieved a particular mark, but a person who has the potential to achieve the mark that we're looking for. At the same time, we're really interested in supporting an athlete and providing a nurturing environment and home."
That philosophy is essential to developing players to succeed in one of the most competitive track and field schedules in the country.
"We compete with the best of the best," said Stephen. "We bring in that type of athlete who has the understanding that you might not be the best now, but with the right mentality and right coaching, we're really going to put you in a situation where you can succeed."
Stephen's philosophy not only applies to the track, but it also extends into the classroom. In fact, Southern Miss's women's cross-country team had the highest GPA in the nation this year and last.
Coach Stephen believes in fostering true "student athletes," and as the head coach, he stresses the academic side of things to the fullest extent.
"The reason for that is that you get a kid who is more serious, more focused, and more able to dedicate attention to his or her schoolwork; and then also have attention reserved for track," explained Stephen. "You also have a guarantee they will be there for four years so you have a chance to develop them."
With the hard work the Golden Eagles have been putting in, both on the track and in the classroom, they are now rewarded with a brand new, top-of-the-line track.
The old track, which was installed in 1995 by former coach Marshall Bell, was eight years outdated and worn out.
"Everyone is extremely fired up about it," proclaimed Stephen. "[Our players] are really excited about it from the standpoint that its new--kids these days love anything that's new."
This new track has the largest legal radius in the world, which means you can run a lot faster on the curves. The track is also built by Beynon Sports Surfaces, the same surface at Eugene, Oregon and the site of the Division I Championship.
"It's a top of the line surface and it's one that world records and national records have been broken on," explained Stephen. "So now in Hattiesburg, we can say we have one of the fastest facilities in the world."
With this top-of-the-line new facility, Stephen has followed suit by hiring one of the best coaches in the sport. Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie, a recently retired world-class sprinter and member of the famed "Golden Girls" of the Bahamas, was added to the staff in September and will train both male and female sprinters.
"It adds a lot of excitement and credibility to the program," Stephen said speaking on Ferguson-McKenzie. "When you have somebody who not only has won an Olympic medal but has also had such an enduring track career, it really gives you a chance to open doors that you never had a chance to before."
The relationship between Stephen and Ferguson-McKenzie dates back years, and Stephen is quite confident in the positive impact the three-time Olympic medalist will have on the program.
"We've had a good sprint tradition at Southern Miss, but when somebody of her caliber and even more importantly, someone of her character, it really gives us a chance to get in living rooms that we never had a chance to before," Stephen said excitedly. "We can gain access to kids that will now take us seriously because we have somebody who can really help them get to that next level in their training."
With the recent success of the Golden Eagles' track and field program, an even brighter future is on the horizon for coach Stephen and company.
Even though he is now equipped with a brand new, world-class track, an Olympic medalist coach, and some of the most dedicated student athletes in the nation, however, coach Stephen's motto remains the same:
"At Southern Miss we're focused on developing the whole athlete, not just getting them faster or jumping higher. We truly focus on developing athletes that are going to be real contributors in society when they leave us."