Jacksonville Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Ron Grigg and his Dolphins are becoming a fixture at the NCAA Championships. This year he returns with JU student-athletes for the seventh year in a row. This year, however, feels different, almost surreal.
Perhaps that is because winning seven consecutive outdoor championships, coupled with seven consecutive indoor titles, stretched beyond even Grigg’s imagination. Even when the Dolphins won their seventh indoor championship in February, that lucky number seven to Grigg didn’t have the same feel as the previous six; he seemed even a bit disappointed by the feel of a 164-143 win over Kennesaw State.
“We won and it didn’t feel like it used to feel. I thought we didn’t have the same team chemistry as we had in the past and we’ve been spoiled that way,’’ Grigg said. “The reality is we had more than a third of our team graduate and when you have that much talent and continuity graduate and bring in a new group there’s growing pains we haven’t been accustomed to."
Regardless of how it feels, Ron Grigg continues to raise the level of the Dolphins’ success in his 10th season as the director and his 13th overall at JU.
Grigg became the director of track and field and cross country at JU in 2002 after serving as the associate head coach under former head coach Becky Motley for a year. Grigg originally came to JU in 1998 before leaving to serve as an assistant coach at Kansas State from 1999 to 2001.
He has made the Dolphins track program a beacon in the Atlantic Sun Conference by winning the A-Sun Indoor and Outdoor Championships in each of the last seven seasons – earning “Coach of the Year” honors in all 14 of those titles, as well as earning the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association South Region Women’s “Coach of the Year” recognition in 2008.
Besides the four All-America honorees and the 18 NCAA Division I Championship qualifiers, Grigg has coached more than 100 A-Sun Conference champions and 200 all-conference performers. School records have been set in 20 of 23 outdoor events and 19 out of 21 indoor track events during Grigg's tenure as assistant and head coach.
His teams have also shown success in the classroom, receiving the USTFCCCA All-Academic Team award for 10 consecutive years (2002-11). Since his return in 2001, the Dolphins have had more than 200 academic all-conference selections among the cross country and track teams.
This season the Dolphins swept the indoor and outdoor titles for the seventh straight year, a conference record they took ownership of last season with their sixth consecutive victory. The Dolphins have yet to lose an indoor title since its inception in 2006, while JU’s outdoor championship surpassed UCF (2000-05) for the most consecutive titles in A-Sun history.
So why, then, is Grigg dissatisfied this season despite such an amazing list of accomplishments? Part of Grigg’s reasoning centered around his team’s sense of purpose.
“The meet would go off and we’d have a good performance or two right away and it would stay that way,’’ Grigg said. “We’d just stay hot. Everybody expected it and they came very business-like to get the job done.’’
In Grigg’s mind, that wasn’t happening this year and that meant more adjustment.
“There are a couple of things happening simultaneously,’’ he said. “First, the other teams are getting better and it’s not as easy to have the margins of victories that we’ve had in the past. And really, those margins of victory aren't very realistic. We’ve done it so much we’ve created a level of expectation where it’s become normal. So, when we have a 25-point or 24-point victory and people believe that is close, it’s close relative to what we’ve done in the past.’’
During the outdoor season, Grigg wasn't seeing a significant difference from the indoor performance which is why his expectation for this meet outdoors championship were very different from the actual outcome.
“We worked hard to point out what I thought the issues were,’’ he said. “Ultimately, the girls have to work through it. I can’t make them act a certain way. When the gun goes off, it’s up to them to execute.’’
Finally, on Wednesday before the UNF meet on March 30, Grigg and the staff walked out of a team meeting at the Davis College of Business and let the athletes work any chemistry issues out among themselves.
“I said ‘A lot of you new kids haven’t been around to know what it’s like. The seniors have been’ and I left the room. I told the seniors to explain it to new kids because my explanations haven’t seemed to work. I called the five seniors to the front of the room and I said ‘I am going to let you sort it out’ and left.’’
Something worked because early in the A-Sun outdoor championships the throwers had early success, just as in the past, and the remainder of the team, just as in the past, followed suit for the lopsided win. The Dolphins scored 178 points on the final day to finish with 242 points, 91 points better than second-place Kennesaw State.
“I think a key was them recognizing they are talented and that if they allowed themselves to be who they are we’ll handle our business,’’ Grigg said. “It was darn near perfect the way they competed. We worked really hard to coach them up but I wasn’t seeing it the way I thought I would during the regular season so I was pleasantly surprised that the talent I knew we had came to the surface at the right time."
So once again Grigg has his Dolphins take their places in another NCAA event, as eight JU student-athletes will compete in six events beginning today at the NCAA East Preliminary Round at North Florida’s Hodges Stadium in Jacksonville.
Freshman Courtney Walker is in the 100-meter for the Dolphins, while juniors Bienna Freeman and Joane Pierre are running in the 800-meter for the second straight season. Senior Stacey Young (100-meter hurdles) and junior LaTonya Payne (400-meter hurdles) are in the hurdles for the Dolphins.
Walker, a local native, ran a Hodges Stadium record time of 11.57 at the A-Sun Championships in April to earn her first postseason spot. Freeman had an A-Sun best time of 2:07.16 at the Pepsi Florida Relays before bettering it at the Georgia Tech Invitational in 2:07.07 (program record) on May 12. Pierre ran a 2:07.67 at the UNF Invitational in March.
Junior Charlene Charles will compete in the long jump and freshman Shanique Walker can run in the 100-meter hurdles if someone drops out. JU is also running in the 4x100-relay. Junior Charlene Charles will also represent the JU track & field team in the heptathlon at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa June 6.
“I am so proud of and happy for Charlene,” JU head coach Ron Grigg said. “She has been so unlucky with injuries. She has worked so to get back to the NCAA Championships. Being in the meet is a great reward, but she has goals for becoming All American.
Young posted a team-best time in winning the 100-meter hurdles (13.55) at the A-Sun Championships. Like Freeman, Payne bettered her time at the Georgia Tech Invitational by running the 400-meter hurdles in 59.91, the second fastest all-time at JU.
Both Walkers, freshman Shadaey Campbell and Payne posted a winning time of 45.28 in relay at the conference meet in April. Charles may join the Dolphins in running a leg at the meet.
Charles recorded a personal-best leap of 20' 0.25" in the long jump at the UCF Black & Golf Challenge in March. Shanique Walker ran a time of 13.72 for the Dolphins in the 100-meter hurdles at the Georgia Tech Invitational.
“Having eight athletes in six different events qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary Round is a milestone achievement for our program,” Grigg said. “Those eight athletes represent 40 percent of our roster advancing to the post season. This group has accomplished a lot with which to be proud.”