Saluki track stars make exciting journeys to reach national indoor meet

    Kenya Culmer

    Kenya Culmer

    March 14, 2014

    By Tyler Wooten

    CARBONDALE, Ill. - Southern Illinois' storied track and field program is sending three more student-athletes to the NCAA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque this weekend. Their journeys to the national meet were anything but easy.

    SIU will be represented by throwers Josh Freeman (shot put) and Sophia Lozano (weight throw), as well as high jumper Kenya Culmer. Freeman, the lone Saluki male representative, hovered within the top-16 qualifying spots all indoor season, but Southern's two female qualifiers made improbable runs at the Missouri Valley Conference Indoor Championships to punch their tickets to New Mexico.

    Culmer -- the 2014 MVC high jump champion -- moved up nearly 20 spots on the national list at the conference meet. Entering the meet, Culmer ranked 26th nationally at 1.79m (5-10.50). But in the high jump, a fraction of an inch can mean the difference between nationals and staying home.

    "I felt kind of nervous because I thought I wasn't going to make it to nationals," the senior jumper said. "But then I knew I was capable of doing it."

    Culmer, native of Nassau, Bahamas, has owned both the all-time indoor and outdoor high jump records at SIU since the end of her sophomore season in 2012, but had only one conference high jump title to her name (2012, outdoors).

    After participating in the triple jump at the conference meet, Culmer said she didn't feel well.

    "I knew I had high jump next and I was expecting a lot from my jump, so I had to re-focus and get my mind straight," she said. "I was just going with the flow and ended up with six feet."

    Culmer won on a personal-best clearance of 1.83m (6-00.00), which not only broke her own SIU record by a quarter inch, but launched herself up the national lists into a tie for ninth. Now with the ties broken, Culmer stands as the eighth-ranked high jumper in the country.



    Freeman, however, had the luxury of being ranked within the top-16 for most of the indoor season. A sophomore from Fox River Grove, Ill., Freeman broke SIU throws coach John Smith's 30-year-old indoor shot put record on Jan. 25 at the Notre Dame Invite. The record-breaking throw of 19.25m (63-02.00) came on his final attempt, on a day eerily similar to the one experienced by Smith nearly 30 years earlier.

    "I broke John Marks' record on Feb. 4, my father's birthday, and he was there to watch me do it," Smith said. "(Josh's throw) reminded me of 30 years ago. It was meant to be."

    Freeman broke his own record on Feb. 21 at the EIU Friday Night Special, setting himself up for a tussle with Illinois State's Curtis Jensen for the conference title one week later. Jensen was and remains the third-ranked shot putter in the country at 20.29m (66-07.00), and at one time that throw ranked as the top mark nationally.

    A golden opportunity to topple Jensen presented itself to Freeman at the conference meet, as Jensen only managed a throw of 18.81m (61-08.50). However, Freeman could only muster a heave of 18.73m (61-05.50) for his second-consecutive indoor MVC runner-up finish.

    "Obviously, I would have liked to have done better at the conference meet," Freeman said, "but heading out to Albuquerque for the NCAA Indoor Championships gives me a chance to redeem myself from conference and finish the season on a high note. I had a good practice yesterday. My confidence going into this weekend is off the charts."

    Lozano, a junior from O'Fallon, Mo., was similar to Freeman in that she hovered around the top-16 qualifying spots all season. But the ending to her season and her trip to nationals was the most dramatic of the three.

    She ended up qualifying for the national meet in the weight throw by snagging the final spot by one centimeter with her MVC championship throw of 20.89m (68-06.50). The title capped a breakout year for the junior, who has been behind a cavalcade of world-class throwers at SIU such as Jeneva McCall, Gwen Berry, Brittany Riley and her current teammate, DeAnna Price. Price led Southern in the weight throw for most of the season until she suffered a leg injury, just as Lozano started throwing personal best after personal best.

    "I never felt that it would ever happen," Lozano said. "When I first got here my freshman year, I always knew that I had teammates that were better than me. I had Jeneva, DeAnna, Kim (Fortney), I never thought that I would be the best. When it first happened it was probably one of the greatest sensations I've ever felt."

    Lozano's season was highlighted by two superb performances at the GVSU Big Meet on Feb. 8 and the conference meet on March 1. Her first time in the ring at the conference meet was daunting, however, as the crux of her season rode on her performance.

    "When I first got in the ring (at conference) I was terrified because I knew what I had on the line," Lozano said. "I had nationals on the line because I was only in 14th place. I had a conference title on the line because I always knew DeAnna could come up and beat me. I had so many things on the line that I wanted to accomplish, and I wanted our team to win conference so I had that on the line, too."

    The fourth and fifth throws of her series at conference proved the most important and emotional. Before her fourth attempt, she learned that Price was pulling out of competition after re-aggravating her leg injury.

    "She and I said the entire season said that we were going to make it to nationals, and we were going to do it together," Lozano said. "Our initial goal from day one was doing it as a team. I instantly turned everything off and said this throw is for DeAnna. At that moment, I knew I had what I needed to make it to nationals."

    The fourth throw was a good one, but it wasn't the clincher. Lozano stepped into the ring for her fifth and let one fly for 20.89 meters -- pushing her into 16th nationally.

    "I saw it land and I got excited before I even heard the measurement," Lozano said.

    The next few hours after she claimed her first MVC weight throw title -- the ninth in 10 years at SIU for throws coach John Smith -- were tortuous, as she sat hinged on the 16th and final spot for nationals by one centimeter.

    "I was checking about every 10 minutes," Lozano said. "I was excited until I heard I got knocked back down to 16. All we could do was hope and pray at that point."

    Conference weekend came and went without another throw equal to or better than hers, thus punching her first ticket to the national meet as well.

    "I'm pretty bummed that DeAnna isn't going, but at the same time my goal from the beginning of the season was to make first-team All-American," Lozano said. "That's what I want to do."

    This time around though, she doesn't feel any jitters.

    "Oddly enough I'm not even as nervous for this meet as I was for conference," Lozano said. "The difference between making it to the meet and actually being there is what has settled my nerves. Now I just have one more meet, and it's gonna go how it goes."

    Lozano leads off for SIU at the national meet in the weight throw today at 5 p.m. CST. Freeman and Culmer will wrap up on Saturday, each competing in their events at 1:30 p.m. CST.