Even with only a handful of athletes at practice on Monday, Mississippi University for Women track and field coach Dedrick Burnett was busy multitasking.
On his left, Burnett was discussing long jump technique with junior Jacob Vickers. Turning to his right, it was shot put form with junior Jessica Hill.
Meanwhile, others were on the track at Columbus High School Sports Complex, where the Owls practice, getting their work in.
The cold weather had most of the athletes going through their routines in sweatshirts. Not Vickers, who not only deemed it T-shirt weather but was apparently more bothered by sand from the landing pit than the cold, stopping every so often to shake sand out of his SpongeBob T-shirt.
Everyone else felt the cold, but practice went on with the indoor season starting this weekend with the Vulcan Invitational hosted by UAB in Birmingham, Alabama.
“We did this meet for the past two years,” Burnett said. “A lot of Division I schools, so basically we’ll go there to run against the clock. We take our first meet as a starting point for the season and try to build on that.”
With a conference to compete in still in the future, the clock is the Owls’ only competition, although there is the United States Collegiate Athletic Association national invitational in the spring. And the Owls are pointing in that direction.
“I want to go to our national championship meet and place top three in the 400 hurdles,” said sophomore Kaitlyn McCree, who holds five indoor and four outdoor records for the young program.
“I run the 400 hurdles, 400 meters, 800 meters, sometimes the 200 … basically anything I get put in,” McCree said. “I do the long jump and the javelin.
“I’m most comfortable in the 400 hurdles. I have time to catch up. You have to be fast, but it’s not like out-of-the-gate fast.”
McCree’s versatility comes in handy on the Owls’ small roster. Burnett said he has 12 women and five men on the team, and with some in COVID protocols, only 10 are expected to make the trip to Birmingham.
“I have a good group of sprinters on the women’s side, and on the men’s side we have a lot of distance runners,” he said.
Tavonta Macon, out of Columbus High School, is one member of that small men’s track roster for The W.
“I ran everything,” Macon said of his days with the Falcons. “I ran every relay, and I ran open events: 400, 200, 800.”
But his best event now is the 400 meters.
“This year I’m trying to go under 50 (seconds),” he said. For comparison, only four men on Mississippi State’s track team beat that time last spring, and it would shatter The W’s school record.
Macon, recently back from a minor injury — “I was overusing my leg,” he says — expects to run the 400, 800 and possibly the 200 in Birmingham.
“I feel good, and I’m ready for the meet Saturday,” Macon said. “It will be my first time running indoor track. Also, I haven’t run track since 2018.”
Macon spent the past two years at East Mississippi, which does not have a track program.
“My coach in high school was a police officer who ran for The W in cross country,” Macon said. “He got me in contact with the coach.”
McCree learned about the Owls program in a similar way.
“I went to Wayne Academy, and one of my former high school track coaches had told me about The W,” she said. “Then (Burnett) found me online.”
Word of mouth is important for a program that does not have high visibility among Mississippi’s high school athletes.
“They are not aware at all,” Burnett said. “We’re fairly new, so a lot of kids don’t know that we have a track team.”
“I didn’t even know The W existed,” said McCree, who grew up roughly three hours south of Columbus.
Filling an assistant coaching position will help with recruiting and getting the word out, Burnett said, but for now there is business to take care of with the athletes he has.
“A lot of them are chasing after school records, others are just going after personal bests,” Burnett said, adding that only three on the current roster have experience with the Owls. Getting more bodies in the program is obviously a priority.
“Hopefully, we’ll have enough people to run some more relays,” said Macon, who hopes to become a teacher and a coach as well as, possibly, a firefighter.
Teacher and coach was McCree’s plan once; now she is studying kinesiology with aspirations of being an athletic trainer.
But the immediate future starts Saturday, with an indoor season that runs through February before track and field moves outdoors starting with the Mississippi College Home Opener meet on March 5.
But the big picture is never far from their minds, no matter how far the national meet, scheduled for April 30 in Albany, New York, might seem from a lonely track at a high school football field on a cold January afternoon.
As Macon said, “I’m trying to reach nationals and help my team get there also.”