Ashley Spencer

Junior sprinter Morolake Akinoson and the Texas women’s 4x400-meter team are headed to the indoor NCAA Championships hoping to make up for a last-second defeat last year.
Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

On a cloudy day at Mike A. Myers Stadium earlier this week, the Texas women’s 4x400-meter team laughed as they leisurely jogged off the track, sweat drenching their burnt orange warmups. 

Despite their calmness, just a three-hour plane ride separates the nation’s top-4x400-meter team from the stress of the indoor NCAA Championships, the crown jewel of college indoor track and field. 

However, to the sprinters, composed of juniors Morolake Akinosun and Courtney Okolo, sophomore Kendall Baisden and senior Ashley Spencer, it’s just another track meet. 

“When you have some of the best 400-meter talent in the country — if not the world — what’s to be nervous about?” Spencer said. 

The Longhorns have been in this situation before, however, coming out on the losing end. Last year at the women’s championship meet, Texas held a 1.5-point lead over Oregon, and the last race, the 4x400-meter, of the meet held the title.

Coming down to a photo finish, the Ducks edged out the Longhorns by a beak. 

Oregon recorded the fastest 4x400-meter time in collegiate history; Texas recorded the second-fastest. But the Longhorns’ loss, coming at two-tenths of a second, propelled Oregon past Texas, giving them the women’s title by half a point. 

“[We have] so much fire and energy from what happened [last year],” Akinosun said. “We’re ready to use that and go out and compete this weekend. Sure, on paper, we’re ranked first in our event and fifth in the country, but you don’t run the race on paper”.

Okolo, a Bowerman hopeful, believes their experience last year and in other indoor meets this season will only help the team this year. 

“We were really close last year, but, this year, we’re more experienced,” Okolo said. “We’ve been on the national stage together, so now we know what it takes.”  

This is the first full season Akinosun, Okolo, Baison and Spencer have been together on the 4x400-meter team at the national level. Although the group ran together last season, Akinosun didn’t compete in the championship meet. 

“We know each other, and we want to win this with each other and for each other,” Okolo said. 

The strong chemistry between the foursome has only helped their success. 

They even keep up each other’s superstitions. Akinosun has had two batons since her senior year of high school that she has never let touch the ground. 

“There are a lot of times when you’re a head coach, and you stand back in awe,” head coach Mario Sategna said. “These girls provide one of those times. They push each other to the max, and it’s fun to watch.”

Entering the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships ranked fifth in the nation, the Longhorn women knew capturing the top spot would take an extraordinary team effort.

At the 4x400-meter relay, the final event of the weekend, the Longhorns hold a once-improbable title within reach. Texas already held the national-record time in the event. All it needed was a victory to best No. 1 Georgia to claim the national championship.

Senior sprinter Briana Nelson, sophomore sprinter Courtney Okolo, freshman sprinter Kendall Baisden and junior sprinter Ashley Spencer ran the event in an NCAA-record time of 3:27.42, but the Oregon Ducks stole the national title with a .02-second advantage at 3:27.40.

“The goal was to come away with a team trophy,” head coach Mario Sategna said in a statement. “But to be second and to get the program on track a little bit is a step in the right direction.”

En route to Texas’ second-place performance, sophomore pole-vaulter Kaitlin Petrillose recorded a collegiate indoor record vault of 15 feet, 1 inch. Senior jumper Shanay Briscoe followed with fifth place in the high jump, clearing 6.5 feet for her fifth First Team All-American honor.

In the 400-meter finals, three Texas runners placed in the same event for just the second time in team history: Spencer (2), Okolo (4) and Baisden (5).

Entering at No. 25, the Longhorn men finished the meet 20th with a team score of 11 points.

Sophomore shot-putter Ryan Crouser, who won the event with a throw of 69 feet, 7 inches, grabbed 10 of those points as he eclipsed the next-best mark by nearly 4 feet. Each of Crouser’s five legal throws landed far enough to win the individual title.

“That was the best series by far that I’ve ever had,” Crouser said in a statement. “Across the board, this was the best meet I’ve ever had.”

Sophomore sprinter Zack Bilderback contributed Texas’ remaining point and earned his first All-American honor with an eighth place finish in the 400 meters with a time of 47.63 seconds.

The outdoor season begins Saturday.