JACKSONVILLE, Florida—The women take center stage Thursday, as five Northwestern State athletes, as well as a relay team kick off their regionals at the NCAA East Preliminaries at the University of North Florida.
All five athletes individually are aiming to finish in the top 24 who reach their event finals Saturday. The top 12 make the nationals next month, which take place in Austin.
After having her first outdoor season cancelled and second hampered by injury, Lynell Washington made it back to regionals for a second consecutive season in the 100-meters.
While Washington is a veteran to the NCAA prelims, she is joined by a new cast of Lady Demons. In addition to sophomore Maygan Shaw, who is taking part in the 400-meters, three freshmen—Sanaria Butler, Vanessa Balde and Sian Weller—are all making their regionals debut.
Shaw and the freshmen trio are the athletes to make up the 4×400 relay team. The last time the quartet ran the event, they posted a season-best 3:35.77 to take home the gold at the Southland Conference championships.
Balde, fresh off being named Southland Conference Female Freshman of the Year, kicks off the day for the Lady Demons in the 100-meter hurdles Thursday, beginning at 6 p.m.
“It’s an honor to compete at such a high level,” Balde said. “I know there are a lot of great athletes there and I am kind of nervous, but there is a reason why I am there. I just need to try my best to show everyone how good I am.”
Balde’s 13.46 in the 100 hurdles, which she earned at the SLC championships, placing her 44th in the event in the region.
She is one of around 20 athletes between the men and women to make it to regionals and is excited knowing she is competing with a number of teammates, knowing they have her back.
“It feels so good to have so many of my teammates also there,” Balde said. “They are not just my teammates, but also my friends. It is such an honor and so cool to compete with them. They always cheer me up when I am nervous and they are there for me. It is so good to know that I have people behind me who support me and help me.”
In addition to Balde winning SLC Female Freshman of the Year, fellow freshman Butler took home the SLC Female Athlete of the Year in addition to earning the Female Most Outstanding Performer award at the conference championships, scoring 30.5 points.
Butler is participating in the 400-meters, running a season-best and school record 52.19 at the Michael Johnson Invitational to place 15th in the region in the event.
She broke her own school record of 52.22 that stood for one week, which she set at the Leon Johnson Invitational in front of the home crowd.
She almost qualified for the long jump as well, but came up just short, being one of the first five who missed the cut.
Also competing in the 400-meters is Shaw, a sophomore from Pineville.
She qualified for the meet on the strength of a time of 52.73. Like Butler, that time also came at the Michael Johnson Invitational.
Shaw finished 25th in the region in the 400, which puts her as a real threat to reach Saturday’s finals and possibly a trip to nationals.
The 400 begins at 7:25.
Weller, a native of Houston, is the other freshman Lady Demon to qualify individually, doing so in the 400-meter hurdles.
She snuck in at 47th in the region in the 400-meter hurdles, clocking a 58.97 in the SLC championship prelims.
Weller earned the bronze in the event at the SLC championships, while also running a leg in the 4×400 relay.
All three are a part of the relay team, which takes place Saturday at 8:45 to conclude the regional meet. The quartet placed 21st in the region.
“Those four young ladies right there are a monster group in the 4×400,” Heimerman said. “With three freshmen and a sophomore. They’ll be a force to be reckoned with throughout their time here.”
Washington, who advanced to the regional finals in 2022, is back again in the 100. She placed 36th in the region, clocking an 11.40 at the Battle on the Bayou.