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JU Track trio hits center stage at NCAA Championship In Oregon

By JU Athletics

Another milestone season for the Jacksonville track & field program continues this week at the NCAA Championships when for the first time in school history three student-athletes will be competing. Only 24 participants from across the country have qualified in each event, which only heightens the opportunity to compete at one of the world’s most famous track and field venues.

The Dolphins will be bringing their own shade of green and gold to the Oregon’s famed Hayward Field June 5-8 as seniors Bienna Freeman (Newark, Del.) and Joane Pierre (Immokalee, Fla.) have qualified in the 800 meters and sophomore Shanique Walker (San Jose, Calif.) will compete in the 100m hurdles.

The lone four-year senior among the trio, the trip to the Oregon caps off what has been almost a fairy-tale season for Pierre.

“This was my last shot at qualifying for nationals,” said the senior from Immokalee. “Every year we’d work so hard but come up just short. I just wasn’t going to have that disappointment again this year, so as a team we pulled together to change some of our old habits to make this final year extraordinary.”

The extraordinary year started in the fall when the 4’11” distance specialist was named all-region as she became the first runner in school history to reach the NCAA Cross Country Championship. Pierre earned her spot in the national meet after winning the Dolphin’s first Atlantic Sun cross country individual title and placing seventh at the NCAA South Region.

“I was always ready physically for a race, but this year I concentrated on being ready mentally,” said Pierre. “I worked a lot with Coach (Ron) Grigg on getting out of the way of myself during the fall and the new mind-set really gave me more confidence.”

Freeman will join Pierre in the 800 meter race. Jacksonville, along with perennial track powerhouse LSU and Duke, as the only schools from the east preliminary with two runners from the event headed to Oregon.

“It’s exciting to be compared with bigger schools like LSU and Duke,” said Freeman. “Joane and I have been so determined with our training all year that we believe that we are able to complete alongside anyone in the country. It goes to show you that just because we are a smaller school doesn’t mean we don’t have top quality athletes like the larger programs.”

After starting her collegiate career at Division II Lincoln University, Freeman found her way to the Jacksonville campus for the 2010-11 campus when she was looking to compete at a higher level. She found instant success under Coach Grigg that spring running a leg of the Dolphins’ 4×400-meter relay that established a school record with a 3:38.24 at the NCAA East Preliminary Round.

As a junior last season she had another impressive showing at the NCAA East Preliminary Round, but came up six-hundredths of a second short of one of the top 12 and a berth into the NCAA Championship. The disappointing end to 2012 only proved as motivation for 2013.

“It pushed me so much and made me more determined and more eager to make it. I didn’t want to feel that same way I did last year,” said Freeman, who entered the East Preliminary this year with the fourth fastest 800m in the field.

“Finishing 13th last year and just missing is worse than finishing dead last. That’s what makes qualifying this year so exciting for me. I was determined to work as hard as I could to make it. Plus having the finals at Track Town in Oregon is a big thing and makes it even more special.”

The trip to Oregon for Walker marks a return to the West Coast for the San Jose, Calif., product. While Pierre and Freeman are closing out their decorated careers, the best is yet to come for the young sophomore hurdler.

Walker participated in the 100-meter hurdles and 4×100-meter relay at the NCAA East Preliminary Round last year. She then prepped for this years prelims by taking home the Championship Most Valuable Performer award at the A-Sun meet following a 32.5 point effort that including a record setting performance in the 100m hurdles. Walker also took home an individual title in the triple jump and placed second in the 400 hurdles while aiding the 4x100m relay team to a third-place showing.

When she placed third in her heat with a time of 13.26 to automatically qualify for Oregon, Walker was happy, but didn’t feel the elation of her teammates.

“I was certainly excited but I was a little disappointed with my time,” said Walker, who ran a 13.16 at the A-Sun Championship. “I would have rather run a faster time so I could go in feeling better because I know the competition is going to be strong in Oregon and I need to work hard to post a good time.”

“It has been a great week of practice, I feel really good. I feel like I’m getting faster and I know what I need to do to get the time that I want. Coach Grigg is a great coach. His workouts are well organized and geared to making you perform better every day.”

Walker made her way to Jacksonville as a freshman last season and immediately felt right at home with the closeness of the team.

“I just felt really comfortable right away here,” said Walker of her first visit to campus. “The campus was nice, the coaches and everyone I meet from the team were all nice.”

Along with the camaraderie she feels from her teammates, an all-around impact like she had at the A-Sun meet was something that attracted her to Jacksonville in the first place.

“I knew I didn’t want to go to school in California. I had looked at a few other bigger schools, but I didn’t just want to go to be another number. I felt that I was going to be able to make a difference here.”

Is a NCAA Championship in store for one of the Dolphins’ trio?

Who knows, but a few things are certain. They are focused mentally, they have put in the work and they will settle for nothing but their best.