RICHMOND, Va. – Two VCU athletes punched their tickets to the NCAA Championships last weekend, and the ripple effects could be felt for years to come.
Sophomore Kiara Porter was fifth and shattered her own school record in the 400-meter run, while junior Jaleesa Williams placed sixth and demolished the program mark in the discus at the NCAA East Regional last weekend in Greensboro, N.C. to secure their bids. It’s just the second time two VCU women have reached the NCAA Championships in the same season, and the first since 1997. Williams is the first VCU thrower in school history to advance from the regional meet.
Their performances stamped an exclamation point on VCU Head Coach Jon Riley’s fifth season with the Rams. Riley inherited a program that was largely uncompetitive on the conference level, let alone the national stage, and has guided it to unmatched prominence. But even measured against accomplishments of the last few years, Porter’s and Williams’ regional performances were a breakthrough.
“I feel like it’s a total validation for years of 60-hour weeks and all the time that we’ve put in,” said Throwing Coach Ethan Tussing.
Beyond that, they could be another springboard for the resurgent program. VCU was the only school in the Atlantic 10 Conference to send two athletes to Eugene, Ore. for the NCAA Championship meet. That kind of information will raise a few eyebrows.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to get the exposure and now we can come back and send kids to our website and say, this is what we’re trying to achieve,” Riley said. “No other recruit or school out there can tell you that we’ve never been there. So we’re here. If you’re looking to get to the next level, we can get you there. That’s our goal.”
Porter agrees that pedigree and reputation matter in the minds of high school recruits.
“Probably not early in high school, but when they start looking at colleges, they start thinking, ‘Oh, this coach took this kid to nationals,’” said Porter, who ran 52.33 last weekend. “Kids look at that, and it probably brings a lot of great interest and exposure to the school.”
What will likely also register are the huge improvements athletes have made in recent years under Riley and his staff. Porter and Williams are the two best examples. In the last 16 months, Porter has essentially shaved two seconds off her 400 time, and she was a state champion at Tabb High School. This wasn’t Riley grabbing a kid from the donut shop. Porter was considered elite from day one. Now, she’s even better.
Williams wasn’t even recruited as a discus thrower, according to Tussing. The Virginia Beach native was a successful shot putter in high school, but rarely threw the discus until she arrived at VCU. Last weekend, Williams topped 50 meters three times, including a personal-best 52.23 on her second toss of the day. Williams’ heave converts to 171’ 4’’, nearly a 70-foot improvement on her best high school mark.
“It puts that message out that you can do whatever you want here,” Tussing said. “If you come in and work hard, there’s no ceiling. You can go to nationals. You can fight to be an All-American.”
Neither Riley or Tussing believes that All-Amercians are going to automatically going to start kicking down their door because the Rams sent two athletes to the NCAA Championships, but it’s a start, they say.
The more immediate impact of Porter’s and Williams’ success will most likely be felt on campus, Riley says. He believes they’ve already inspired VCU’s current athletes to get better, and many are already asking for summer workout plans weeks ahead of schedule.
“It’s a breakthrough, and I think it shows that with hard work…the rest of the team knows what [Porter and Williams] have put into it, and they know how much sweat, work and all that stuff that these two athletes have put into it in order to get there,” he said. “Hopefully it will help them raise their level of expectations and work so that they can get there as well. We just have to make sure we have the right people on the bus. It’s a culture.”