Privateers track team hits ground running

NEW ORLEANS — One year ago, the UNO track and field program was nonexistent.

On Thursday, two athletes will represent the school in the NCAA East preliminary rounds in Greensboro, N.C. — the first to represent the university in a postseason event since 2010 — when freshman Matti Mortimore and senior Brandon Knight take part in the three-day meet.

Three years ago this week, UNO withdrew from the Sun Belt Conference and was preparing a shift to Division III. It lost dozens of athletes, who were allowed to freely transfer to other schools and gain immediate eligibility.

But in March 2012, school president Peter Fos announced the Privateers would remain in Division I. Soon after, it was announced they would join the Southland Conference. To become eligible, track and field was added, although hardly anyone could have expected the program to produce any results in the short term.

Then-Athletic Director Derek Morel hired Ty Sevin last July, and the coach, who has had success with just about everything he has been associated with, would not stand for anything different in New Orleans.

Although it was too late in the year to recruit high school athletes for the 2013 season, he looked internationally, to junior colleges and even within other sports programs at UNO.

It worked. Not only will Mortimore, who is from England, and Knight, a guard on the basketball team, represent the Privateers this weekend, but Sevin has landed several international recruits and is hopeful for more.

He thinks within a couple of years, UNO could be the top program in the country for javelin throwers. Sevin, a native of Cut Off, threw the javelin at LSU and later at Texas A&M in the early 1990s.

“Starting over is no different than it is with an established program,” said Sevin, a member of LSU’s national championship team in 1990. “Our No. 1 priority is we have to have an administration that supports what we do. And I’ve said over and over again, we’re a Division I institution that is striving to win national championships. …

“When we recruit student-athletes, we let them know there are two expectations. They must graduate with a 3.0 (GPA) and be productive in the classroom and in society. Second, they must come here and excel at the level in which we’re at, and that’s as a Division I program.”

Before Sevin even was hired, Knight was hoping to become a more important piece of UNO’s athletic revitalization. He asked that along with playing basketball, he be allowed to be on the track team, as well. As a high jumper in high school, his previous best of 6 feet, 4 inches wouldn’t be good enough to place him among the nation’s best, but it was enough to land him a spot.

Knight improved throughout the season, and set a facility record last month at SLU’s meet at Strawberry Field in Hammond with a jump of 6-103/4. The jump was ranked 36th in the East region, which was good enough to qualify him for Greensboro, as the top 48 in each event make it.

“I just have to make it to 7 feet; that’s what I have been working on,” said Knight, who graduated in Urban Studies from UNO last weekend. “I have learned so much being out here.”

While Knight hopes to play basketball in Europe later this year, Mortimore will spend the summer at his home in Suffolk, England, and in Finland to compete in an international event. Although this “hot weather” in New Orleans is a bit much, with every day he spends here, the 20-year-old said he is sure he made the right choice.

“The people here are so friendly,” he said. “You can just strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere. At home, you need a reason to talk to someone, like ask for the time or something. … My first day in the dorm, I was searching for the water button on the fountain drink machine. Someone showed me where it was, and the next thing I knew we were hanging out in the French Quarter.”

Mortimore has easily adjusted to throwing the javelin in America. He is ninth regionally and 19th nationally after setting a school record of 231-10 at the McNeese meet in Lake Charles last month.

“I’ve improved immensely since I’ve been here … and I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” he said. “That’s a testament to the program here. I’m stronger than I have been before, and I’m just as fast as I have been before. This year already has been more than I could have asked for.”