Lighting the Tower one baton at a time
At the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships nearly three months ago in Sacramento, Calif., Sheretta Jones, Melaine Walker, LaTashia Kerr and Jerrika Chapple each ran with a standard track and field baton en route to their 4x400-meter win which subsequently propelled the Longhorns to the NCAA team championship. Texas secured the NCAA team title in the meet's final event, as the Longhorns eliminated UCLA's three-point lead in 3:27.13, capping four triumphant days in Sacramento.
Little did they know on that late June night that the nondescript aluminum cylinder figuratively was something much more.
On Wednesday evening, that baton, in effect, was transformed. In its place, The University lit its own symbolic burnt-orange torch - the famous UT Tower on mid-campus - that bathed the skyline in burnt orange and white lights in celebration of the school's fifth NCAA women's track and field title.
In front of hundreds of fans, local media, UT staff members and student-athletes from other teams, head coach Bev Kearney's entire track and field squad had the traditional team photo taken in front of the Tower, which was lit orange with a number "1" on all sides, signaling the NCAA title.
"It's different when you get on a winning streak and you've won several championships in a short time frame," explained Kearney, who now has brought five national titles to Austin. "But, to have the type of drought we had for four or five years and come back to win another championship is just phenomenal."
The large gathering at the 21st-Street side of the UT Tower included some of the newest members of the Longhorn athletics family who also stopped by to get their first tastes of the UT Tower tradition.
"The tower lighting gives us motivation to win a national title ourselves," said Erica Dooley, a freshman golfer from Houston. Her teammate, sophomore Kelley Louth, agreed.
"It's a tremendous accomplishment to see all of their hard work paying off," noted Louth, a Victoria native. "They won a national championship and it motivates the rest of us to do the same."
Assistant volleyball coach Tonya Johnson was pleased to attend her first lighting of the UT Tower, but she is eager to return with her own team.
"I wanted to come out and see what it's like because I hope our team will be here soon," said Johnson, now in her third season at Texas. "I tell people all the time that if you can't find me when we win the national championship, it's because I'm camping out in front of the UT Tower."
The reigning national outdoor track coach of the year, Kearney added the 2005 NCAA outdoor title to indoor and outdoor titles captured at Texas in 1998 and 1999. The excitement of winning another national title is not lost on Kearney, who also claimed a national indoor title as the head coach at Florida.
"This will never get old, not when you see the looks on the athletes' faces and see the girls experience something that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Kearney explained. "They have four years to try to experience this feeling, and some people never get that chance."
Someone who has taken full advantage of that opportunity is All-America and NCAA champion sprint standout Marshevet Hooker. As one of the seven Longhorn competitors in Sacramento last June, the sight of the UT Tower draped in burnt orange served as a triumphant symbol for the junior.
"All of the hard work and training we did last year really paid off," noted Hooker, who added the 2005 national title in the 100-meter dash to her list of accolades. "The tower lighting is something we have been looking forward to for a long time. Seeing the tower in burnt orange just solidifies the reality of this team winning the national championship and reminds us that it is all about perseverance and teamwork."
Jones, like Hooker, understands the importance of bringing another national title to the UT campus.
"It's an honor to give this championship to the school and give back in a big way by lighting the tower," said Jones, an All-America performer who ran the opening leg of the title-clinching relay. "We're delighted and a little overwhelmed right now. Winning the title truly was a blessing. We thank everyone who has come out and supported us."
Hooker insists the team is ready to make another run to a national title.
"Everyone is hungry to win the championship again. We know everyone is coming after us, so we just have to train hard," Hooker noted. "It's going to come down to who wants it the most."
Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky aptly summed up the meaning of lighting the UT Tower at this time of the year - August 31st - with the entire team and student body back on campus.
"It's the first day of class, and we've got freshmen on campus saying to themselves, `Wow, there's a big number one on the tower,' Plonsky stated. "Then they stroll up 21st Street and see a really nice group of accomplished young women, their peers, being honored. They understand this is an achievement they can be proud of because they are Longhorns now. That's what it's all about."