USC claims NCAA title with spectacular finish

Kendall Ellis anchored the 4x400m relay, winning USC the national team title by 1 point. (Photo: Nick Lackides/TrackTown USA)

The USC Trojans won their second team outdoor championship title on Saturday at the 2018 NCAA Women’s Track and Field Championships.

The Trojans were all smiles on the podium as they hoisted their trophy in the midst of a downpour at Hayward Field.

But their fairytale finish didn’t come easy.

USC wins the national team title  in a race that came down to the 4x400m. (Photo: Theo Mechain/TrackTown USA)

USC secured the team title with 53 points after trading spots back and forth throughout the day with Georgia and Stanford, who finished second and third, respectiverly, with 52 and 51 points. 

“I wanted it for the team. We wanted this so bad all season, we wanted to be national champions,” said USC senior anchor Kendall Ellis.

 Until the 4×400-meter relay, the odds of USC winning seemed unlikely. Coming into the last race of the day, the Trojans needed a photo finish to gain 10 points to secure the top spot on the podium.   

However, the standings didn’t deter Ellis and her teammates, sophomores Kyra Constantine, Anna Cockrell and senior Deanna Hill from keeping their sights on the championship. 

“We’re Trojans, it’s what we do, we fight on,” they chorused in the front of a group of reporters following their victory.

Purdue held a steady lead for most of the race until Cockrell, on her second leg, handed the baton to Hill for the third leg, who sprinted toward Ellis to deliver the baton for the final lap.

It was not a clean exchange. Hill’s mishandle of the baton almost cost them the win. Ellis almost tripped before sprinting the final 400m.

“I ended up tripping her, but we got it through and she took off and everything was good,” said Hill. “I passed it off to her, she didn’t take it the first time and the second time she put her hand out I got it in there.” 

Consequently, Ellis had to make up 15 meters to catch Purdue’s Jahneya Mitchell. Once Ellis got hold of the baton, she and her teammates knew she’d find a way to gain a fast kick to make it to the finish line.

“I knew she had it; I had no doubt in my mind that Kendall would take it,” Cockrell said. “Even though they bobbled the baton as soon as Kendall got it safely and took off there was no doubt in my mind we were going to win the team title.”

Overall, the group understood the importance of the finishing strong, and took that with them until the end.

“Bottom line, they knew it always comes down to the 4×4, it’s what we’ve been working through all season to finish off strong,” Ellis said.

USC head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert echoed her team’s excitement following her team’s victory.

“I’m still trying to recover,” she said. “It feels amazing I’m so proud.” 

Gilbert was unsure of the result until the last second when she nervously looked at the scoreboard.

“I didn’t know what time they were going to put on that board first. I was a wreck,” said Gilbert. 

The race demonstrated a concept that she’s emphasized throughout the season: for her team to focus on controlling their races and not stress about their fellow competitors. Another key message she shared with her team is that the process doesn’t have to be perfect. 

“One real major thing that I’ve been focusing on this year is it doesn’t have to be perfect to still get it done,” said Gilbert. 

Gilbert’s words rang true as her team faced the challenge head-on.

“I told them it’s going to come down to the national championship,” Gilbert said. “Be prepared for this very moment so it’s your moment. I knew that we could recover it and we just had to stay steady.”

Keturah Orj of Georgia claimed her fourth consecutive national title in the triple jump with a winning jump of 46 feet, ¾ inch (14.04m).

“I think I only took three jumps, I’m really happy with where I’m at,” Orji said.

Despite fouling on her first jump, she stayed steady throughout the rest of the competition to maintain her title.

“I wish I didn’t foul my first jump because I would’ve felt more confident during the competition,” she said. “The best thing you can do is get back out there and see if anyone responds to it.”

As he finishes her career at Georgia, Orji reflected on her goals coming into college.

“I didn’t think I’d accomplish that coming into college. I just knew how competitive it was to compete in collegiate track and field and I’m blessed to be able to do that,” she said.

In the end, the last NCAA Women’s Outdoor Championships at historic Hayward Field was one to remember.