AUSTIN, Texas—What were you doing in 2011?
During the week of June 8-11, 2011, the top song on the charts was “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele and the No. 1 movie was “X Men: First Class.”
That was also the week in which Northwestern State freshman Jessica Talley made the nationals in javelin, the last female freshman to accomplish that feat and second since Samantha Ford in 2003.
That was until Sanaria Butler did just that May 27 when she clocked a 53.88 in the 400-meter dash, finishing third in her heat to clinch a trip to nationals.
“I was so relieved after I finished at the end of my race at the NCAA prelims,” Butler said. “That was the hardest race I’ve ever ran, and I was happy it was over. It got me to nationals, though, so that made the pain feel better.”
The setting for nationals? That is Austin, Texas, about a four-hour drive from her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas.
“Sanaria and Samantha have a lot of similarities,” head coach Mike Heimerman said. “Both athletes are extremely talented. Sanaria is one of the best athletes in her event in the United States in the junior USAs and Samantha ranked second in her event in that. Both ladies came from small schools as well.”
Butler’s 400-meter dash takes place at 9 p.m. at Mike A. Myers Stadium and will be broadcast on ESPN2/ESPN+.
She tries to become the first NSU athlete to win a national title since Jasmyn Steels’ indoor long jump crown in 2019. Butler aims to become the first outdoor athlete to capture a national crown since Trecey Rew in the discus in 2011.
“It’s huge to have a freshman going to nationals,” Heimerman said. “In the history of our program, she is only the third true freshman to make it to the national meet.
“To make it this far is one of the biggest honors in our spot because they only take 24. There are literally thousands in each event and to be in the top 24, it is amazing and to be an 18-year-old freshman is even more amazing.”
While the meet is different, as a few more eyeballs will be viewing nationals, the venue will be a familiar one.
Butler, the Southland Conference Female Athlete of the Year, also competed in Austin at the Texas Relays, as well as in her high school championships.
“I think it could help her somewhat,” sprints coach Adam Pennington said. “I know it will be the first time a family member and some friends are in attendance, so that should play a role as well.”
The top eight finishers Thursday advance to Saturday’s finals, with those eight earning First Team All-American. The next eight earn a spot on the second team and the final eight of the 24 at nationals earn honorable mention.
The top three in each of the three heats at the NCAA East prelims, as well as the next three fastest times in the finals at the prelims automatically earned a spot in nationals, and she finished third in her heat, coming from behind to solidify her spot after winning her heat two days prior.
Coming out of high school, Pennington knew she would be a star right out of the gate.
“I knew she would be this good, this early,” Pennington said. “I felt we got a steal right away. I thought she was a power-5 girl coming out of high school. I knew she was going to be a star from the moment I saw her in the fall of her senior year.”
While at Port Neches-Groves High, Butler was a standout long jump, triple jump and 400-meter dash.
While Butler’s calling card so far at NSU has been the 400, Butler was a state champion in the long jump with a jump of 19-7.75.
Butler was a two-time district champion in the long jump and the 400, as well as a district champion in the triple jump.
She made a statement from meet one at NSU that she would be a tough athlete to beat in the 400-meter dash.
In her first ever collegiate meet, the freshman raced to a 56.85 in the 400, winning the event over athletes from Baylor and Texas State, among others.
It just got better from there, leading up to breaking the program record in the 400 meters—twice.
The first time around, she did in front of the home crowd, as she sprinted to a 52.22 at the Leon Johnson Invitational. That blistering time not only was the school record, but also the meet record and Walter P. Ledet Track Complex record.
That program record lasted all of seven days, breaking the 400-meter mark once again at the Michael Johnson Invitational at Baylor, posting a 52.19.
Those marks helped her earn a spot in the regionals in Jacksonville.
In the outdoor conference championships, she was named the Outstanding Female Performer, racking up 30.5 points, finding the podium four times—silver medals in the 200, 400 and triple jump, as well as a member of the 4×400 relay team that raced to the gold.
While Butler has had a strong beginning, Pennington knows there is much more in store for her.
“She just continues to work on her craft,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of girls come in with similar mindsets and work just as hard, but some people are just built different. She has that gift and I think she’ll continue to grow throughout her career and become better and better.”
Having competed against some of the best athletes in the world during the outdoor season, Butler is ready and confident going in.
“It feels really good to know that I am at the level of some of the best athletes in the world right now,” she said. “It shows that I can compete with them.”
“It also feels good knowing all the hard work I’ve done has paid off and it has prepared me for meets like this, going against top competition from throughout the country.”
She continues her storybook freshman season at nationals, trying to match Steels’ championship with one of her own. In Ford’s nationals appearance as a freshman, she placed 12th.
That finish for Butler, who is in lane No. 2 at nationals, would put her as a second team All-American.
Not bad for a true freshman.
“We didn’t draw the best lane and we have the NCAA record holder just a few lanes behind us,” Pennington said. “So we know we have to be at our best. She’s ready.”