Following a history-making win at the Southeastern Conference Indoor Championships in February, it would be easy for LSU distance ace Laura Carleton to go to the league’s outdoor meet with high expectations.
But Carleton, a senior from Lake Charles, isn’t going to let her surprising victory in the 5,000 meters at the SEC indoor meet allow unrealistic thoughts to creep into her mind this weekend.
Even though she won the 5,000 at the indoor meet — a first for the Lady Tigers in an SEC indoor or outdoor race longer than a mile — the main goal is to score in two events in her final conference meet in the SEC Outdoor Championships that begin Thursday in Columbia, Mo.
This time, the assignment is a bit more challenging.
Carleton will compete in the 10,000 meters on Friday night and come back for the 5,000 on Sunday. If all goes well, she’ll scratch out a few points for the fourth-ranked Lady Tigers in the 10K and have enough fuel in the tank to validate her indoor win in the 5K.
“I don’t know exactly,” Carleton said of her own expectations, “but I would just like to get as many points as possible for the team between the two races. I don’t want to be too unrealistic.
“At the same time, when you win one (title) it sets the standard for you to want to do it again,” she said. “One more title and lots of points for the team would be nice. So we’ll see what we can do.”
Carleton stunned lots of people, perhaps even herself, when she raced to a win in 16 minutes, 18.20 seconds in the 5,000 at the SEC indoor meet.
She ran a nice tactical race early, settling in behind a pair of favored frontrunners from Arkansas before moving into second place and kicking past South Carolina’s Kayla Lampe in the final 30 meters for the win.
“The Arkansas girls were leading most of the race and I caught them slowly, and then the South Carolina girl came with me and looked like she was going to win with two laps to go,” Carleton recalled. “But she couldn’t go any more, and I had a really crazy kick and passed her on the final straightaway.
“It felt a little weird, but right at the end I said, ‘Wow, I’m going to win this and score 10 points for the team,’ ” she said. “Later, it was like, ‘Wow … SEC champion.’ Not a lot of people can say that.”
No one from LSU could considering the Lady Tigers’ storied program has long been known for the sprints, hurdles, relays, middle distances and jumps — certainly not the distance events.
LSU coach Dennis Shaver and distance coach Mark Elliott said they thought she had a shot with Elliott directing her through the early part of that race.
“We really felt Laura had a legitimate shot at winning the SEC title in the 5K,” Shaver said. “You never know who’s going to line up that late in the meet, especially not knowing what the team scores are going to be like.
“I did know this: It was going to take a good effort for somebody to beat her because of the confidence she gained during the indoor season. She was healthy and ready to go.”
Carleton carried that momentum to the outdoor season, and has put herself in a position to contend for another SEC title in the 5,000.
She went to the Mt. SAC Relays on April 19 and posted a time of 15:44.41, shaving more than 341/2 seconds off Muffy McLeod’s school record that stood since 1985.
“I was just going there to try to break 16 minutes,” Carleton said. “I went 15 seconds under that, so that was a great accomplishment because it definitely made me feel like I’m doing the right things.
“I’ve had a lot of personal bests this outdoor season, so that’s really kept me excited. It’s exciting because I’ve been feeling good in my workouts and feeling like I can go even faster.”
Her 5K time is the fastest in the SEC this spring although some athletes don’t run that event until the conference meet. Carleton also ranks ninth on the NCAA’s descending order list.
“It’s interesting to have that time with my name next to it,” said Carleton, who never finished higher than sixth at the SEC meet before her win in February. “I’m not used to being up there, but rankings in individual events don’t really matter.”
Still, Shaver said it’s significant.
“She’s meant a lot to us,” he said. “To be able to win an SEC championship and then set a school record and be the best 5K runner we’ve ever had at this school says a lot in itself.”
Earning another win at the SEC meet would kick off a big week for Carleton, who’ll receive a master’s degree in business administration on May 17 and begin working at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson after the NCAA Championships.
“Laura is one of those model student-athletes,” Shaver said of Carleton, who’s maintained close to a 4.0 GPA in obtaining two degrees. “She’s done well academically and contributed at the highest level on the track. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.”