Saluki signee Raven Saunders (Charleston, S.C./Burke HS) owns the national high school shot put record at 17.25m (56-07.25), nearly two feet further than the previous record.
Zach Dahleen breaks 39 year school record in the one mile run.
A native of Noblesville, Ind., Sparks has been at SIU since 2002, starting out as the head women's cross country coach and women's distance track coach until the track and field programs were combined in 2004. Since, Sparks has been head men's and women's cross country coach and men's and women's distance coach for Saluki track.
Sparks has led a resurgence in Saluki cross country not seen since the days of legendary coaches Bill Cornell and Lew Hartzog. He owns six MVC cross country titles to his name in his 12 seasons -- including two alone in 2013. The Saluki men and women swept the MVC Championships on Nov. 2, 2013, becoming the first school to do so since 1989 (Illinois State) -- making Sparks only the second head coach in conference history to sweep both the men's and women's titles (John Kornelson, Wichita State, 1987).
The men's win in 2013 was his fifth at SIU, which tied Bill Cornell for the most men's titles in school history and is also tied for the fourth-most in conference history. The sweep made Sparks the winningest cross country coach in SIU history and the fourth-winningest coach in Valley history.
The Saluki men were able to replicate some of the same magic from 2012, posting three 2012 All-MVC runners (Zach Dahleen, fourth; Nick Schrader, fifth; Oscar Medina, sixth) back in the top-10 en route to a dominant 59-point victory over newcomer Loyola. That margin of victory is the largest in the 103-year history of Missouri Valley cross country.
The Saluki women earned their first title in 21 years (1992, Don DeNoon) in a more dramatic fashion. Southern was down eight at the midway point of the race, but made an impressive charge for the victory, besting pre-championship favorite Bradley by 20 points. The Saluki women put three in the top-10 for All-MVC (Kristen Levi, third; Sadie Darnell, fourth; Kelley Gallagher, fifth) and three more within the top-20 to seal the victory. The Saluki women also went on to have a historic outing at the NCAA Midwest Regional, where they finished in fourth place -- the highest finish in women's history at SIU.
This success is not recent, however. Since coming to Southern in 2002, Saluki cross country under Sparks has consistently been one of the top squads in the highly-competitive Missouri Valley. In addition to his six team championships, Sparks has coached 43 All-MVC performers, two All-Americans (Jeff Schirmer, 2008-09), four MVC champions (Mohamed Mohamed, 2006; Jeff Schirmer, 2007-08; Dan Dunbar, 2010), and five national qualifiers -- the most recent finalist being Brian Dixon in 2012 (143rd). His men's teams have not finished worse than third in the Valley since taking over the combined program, and his women's teams have posted three conference runner-up finishes before breaking their 21-year championship drought in 2013.
In just two seasons with the women's program in 2002 and 2003, Sparks improved the Saluki women to an MVC runner-up finish in 2003 -- the highest finish for SIU on the women's side since their first and only title in 1992. In his first season in charge of the combined program in 2004, Sparks led the Saluki men to a share of the MVC title (the first for SIU in nine years) and posted the second-straight runner-up finish for the Saluki women.
In 2006, Sparks coached Mohamed Mohamed to an individual MVC title -- Sparks' first as a head coach and SIU's first since 1996 (Stelios Marneros). Jeff Schirmer took the crown in 2007 (with Mohamed right behind him in second and Kevin Doran in third) to help seal Southern's first outright title since 1995 -- the first time in the records of the Missouri Valley men's championship that the same school claimed spots one-through-three. Schirmer and the Saluki men repeated as champions in 2008 -- the first SIU repeat since 1994-95 (Bill Cornell).
Schirmer was deposed in 2009 by Illinois State's Scott Krapf, but both he and Mohamed finished their Saluki careers in the top-three to help Southern cling to a runner-up finish. The year still turned out to be remarkable for Schirmer, who finished second at the regional meet and 19th in the nation -- helping SIU secure fifth in the Midwest region. The following year, Dan Dunbar picked up the torch left behind and cruised to a 16-second MVC championship victory to help secure yet another second-place finish for Sparks' SIU squad.
In 2011, Sparks coached four All-MVC runners for a third-straight runner-up finish, but in 2012 the dam broke loose. Sparks claimed five All-MVC runners en route to his fourth MVC title -- the most ever for Sparks and the most by any school in the Valley since 2009 (Indiana State).
On the track, Sparks has had similar success with his distance runners -- who have contributed to some of the best Saluki track and field teams in school history. In 12 seasons Sparks has coached 47 MVC champions, 96 All-MVC performers, five MVC Most Valuable Track Athletes and five NCAA finals qualifiers. The Saluki men captured their first championship in 20 years indoors in 2012, due in large part to Sparks' MVC champion distance medley relay team and the individual efforts of five-time MVC champion Zach Dahleen.
The SIU track record book is littered with Sparks' athletes. His runners own 13 all-time SIU records and claim 61 other top-10 spots all-time. Chief among those are two records by Zach Dahleen in the mile (4:00.16) and 1500 meter run (3:41.18) -- records that were each held for over 40 years prior. Most impressively, each top-10 spot in the women's 3000 meter steeplechase is occupied by a Sparks disciple -- an event that was broken twice within the last calendar year alone by Sadie Darnell and new record holder Krista Menghini (10:12.54).
In addition to the athletic accomplishments his runners have achieved, Sparks has led one of the most successful academic programs at SIU and in the MVC. His cross country teams have consistently achieved top-20 GPAs nationally and his student-athletes have earned numerous awards for their academic efforts. From 2002-09, Sparks' women's teams achieved Academic All-America status, with the 2003 squad notching the second-highest GPA (3.61) in the country. In 2010, his men's team returned the favor with the second-highest GPA nationally at 3.60.
Across both track and cross country, Sparks has accumulated 127 total MVC Scholar-Athletes honorees. In fact, he owns 73 of SIU's 140 (52.1 percent) track and field Scholar-Athletes accumulated during his time in Carbondale (2002-present). In addition, every MVC Elite 18 award that SIU track and field has earned have all been Sparks' distance runners.
Sparks graduated from Noblesville High School in 1992 where he was a three-time top-five finisher in the state cross country meet and a four-time All-Indiana track and field recipient.
As a student-athlete at his alma mater Indiana University, Sparks was a consistent scorer at the Big Ten Championships on the track. In 1996, he narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., running a time of 14:12.82 in the 5000 meter run. All four years he spent in Bloomington, Sparks was a top-three runner for the Hoosier cross country team. He gained valuable experience working with four-time national champion and American record holder Bob Kennedy and Hall of Fame coach Sam Bell.
Sparks graduated from IU in 1997 with an education degree in general science and biology, and he completed his master's in applied sports science at IU in 1999. From there, Sparks gained his first coaching job at IU as a graduate assistant and volunteer assistant for three seasons. He played a key role in the recruitment and development of many cross country and track and field athletes for the Hoosiers. Additionally, he was part of the coaching staff of the women's Hoosiers team that won both the indoor and outdoor Big Ten Championships in 2000.
Prior to joining the Salukis, Sparks enjoyed a successful two-year stint at Ohio State as the head women's cross country coach and women's distance coach alongside future Saluki coaches Connie Price-Smith and John Smith from 2000-02. The Lady Buckeye distance crew set school records in the 3000 meter steeplechase and the distance medley relay under Sparks' direction.
Sparks and his wife, Emily, reside in Carbondale with their son, Samuel, and daughter, Eliza.
|MVC Cross Country Team Finishes|
Career Notes (Track and Cross Country):
Winningest coach in SIU cross country history with six Missouri Valley Conference championships
Owns five MVC men's cross country titles (2004, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013)
Guided the Saluki women cross country team to its first title in 21 years in 2013
Four-time MVC Cross Country Coach of the Year (2007, 2008, 2012, 2013)
Coached 51 MVC Champions
Coached 140 All-MVC performers
Five MVC Most Valuable Track Athletes
Four MVC Cross Country Athletes of the Year
Coached 127 MVC Scholar-Athletes
Coached 10 NCAA Finals Qualifiers
Has qualified an SIU athlete in every distance event for the NCAA Regional meet
Two Cross Country All-Americans (Jeff Schirmer, 2008-09) and two outdoor track second-team All-Americans (Schirmer and Dahleen)
Coached ten USATF Junior All-Americans
Coached 11 cross country teams that have earned Academic All-American status. His 2003 women's squad (3.61) and his 2010 men's squad (3.6) had the second-highest GPAs in the nation
Coached one USATF Junior National Champion, a World Junior competitor and a Pan Am Junior competitor
Jeff Schirmer | Southern Illinois, 2006-11
Two-time cross country All-American
First SIU cross country All-American in 24 years
Outdoor track second-team All-American (10,000m, 2011)
19-time MVC Champion
22-time All-MVC performer
Four-time MVC MVP
All-time MVC record holder in the indoor 5000m (13:53.60) and outdoor 10,000m (28:42.71)
All-time SIU record holder in the 10,000m (28:42.71)
Only four-time MVC champion of the indoor 5000m
Only four-time MVC champion of the outdoor 10,000m
Only three-time MVC champion of the indoor 3000m
Mohamed Mohamed | Southern Illinois, 2005-10
2006 MVC Cross Country Champion
2007 NCAA Cross Country qualifier
2010 MVC 5,000m champion
Dan Dunbar | Southern Illinois, 2007-12
2010 MVC Cross Country champion
2010 Outdoor MVC champion in 10,000m
2008 USATF Junior Champion in the 10K
Finished 19th in 10K at World Junior Championships
Joe Byrne | Southern Illinois, 2003-05
2005 NCAA qualifier in cross country
Three-time All-MVC in cross country
Member of 2007 MVC All-Centennial Cross Country team
Zach Dahleen | Southern Illinois, 2009-2014
Five-time MVC champion
School record holder in mile (4:00.16) and 1500m (3:41.18)
2013 MVC Indoor Most Valuable Track Athlete
2012 outdoor second-team All-American (1500m)
Brian Dixon | Southern Illinois, 2010-2014
2012 NCAA qualifier in cross country (143rd)
Ty-Nica Davis | Southern Illinois, 2003-06
2006 outdoor NCAA finals qualifier (800m)
SIU all-time record holder in indoor 600m (1:30.65), indoor 800m (2:07.65) and outdoor 800m (2:06.31)
Four-time MVC champion
Finished ninth in the 800m at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008 (2:03.22)
Noa Beitler | Southern Illinois, 2001-04
Eight-time MVC champion
SIU all-time record holder in the mile (4:45.80) and distance medley relay (11:44.48) indoors
2003 outdoor NCAA qualifier
Only three-time MVC champion in the outdoor 1500m