With the beginning of his 10th season as the head coach of the LSU track and field program approaching, Dennis Shaver thought about his personal milestone and chuckled Thursday.
“It means I’ve survived for 10 years as a head coach at the college level,” he joked. “But really, it’s another opportunity to put together a group of athletes to represent LSU in a positive way for another indoor and outdoor season — with both genders.”
With that, Shaver began looking forward to getting a long indoor/outdoor season off to a solid start with a lot of new names on the roster — especially on the women’s side.
That will be the task when the LSU women and men open the season Saturday at the Auburn Indoor Invitational in Birmingham, Ala.
While Shaver knows there’s no time to waste with the NCAA Indoor Championships just eight weeks away, the first thing he and his staff must do is blend a new group of athletes in with a solid nucleus of returnees on both sides.
The Lady Tigers open the season ranked eighth after finishing fourth at the NCAA outdoor meet last June; the men are 25th following a seventh-place finish.
But Shaver thinks both his squad have a solid group of returnees to turn to despite the loss of three national champions — Kimberlyn Duncan and Natoya Goule from the women’s team and Damar Forbes from the men’s squad.
Duncan and Forbes graduated after four solid years in the program, while Goule, the reigning NCAA indoor and outdoor 800 meters champion, transferred to Clemson after distance coach Mark Elliott became the head coach there.
Those are big losses, but Shaver said there’s enough talent to work with.
“I really think we have a better nucleus returning than what’s being recognized nationally,” said Shaver, who’s beginning his 33rd year of coaching at the junior college and Division I levels. “We still have NCAA-caliber competitors.”
Top returnees on the women’s side include hurdlers Jasmin Stowers and Nikita Tracey, jumpers Keri Emanuel and Lynnika Pitts, and throwers Denise Hinton and Karen Henning.
The Lady Tigers will also get All-American Takeia Pinckney back for the outdoor season, which will help in the sprints and relays.
They will join a recruiting class that is headed up by sprinter Jada Martin, one of the nation’s top short sprinters as a seven-time Georgia state champion.
The Tigers have a solid group back from last year’s team.
It’s led by sprinters Aaron Ernest, Darrell Bush and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake; quartermilers Quincy Downing and Cyril Grayson; jumper Fitzroy Dunkley; pole vaulter Andreas Duplantis; and Rodney Brown, who’ll compete outdoors in the discus.
The top newcomer to watch is junior-college transfer Vernon Norwood, a quarter-miler. A Morgan City native, Norwood won six national titles at South Plains (Texas) Junior College in the 4x400-meter relay and indoor 600 meters.
“We’re eager to get it going again,” Shaver said. “The athletes are anxious themselves to get a good competition in. For the most part, the talent is there.
“It’ll be interesting to see how they all develop, especially the younger ones on the women’s side. But we’re ready to see how they compete.”