Auburn University’s track and field program has a strong history of recruiting sprinters and jumpers from the Caribbean. The class of 2016, which entailed standout junior athletes such as Akeem Bloomfield, Nathon Allen, Raheem Chambers, Sherwayne Allen and Natalliah Whyte was no different.
The class helped contribute to Auburn’s successful 2017 indoor and outdoor campaigns, highlighted by huge wins and school records in NCAA competition. Under Coaches Ralph Spry and Henry Rolle, Auburn University has seen impactful recruitment of over the last two decades.
“I’m into my 21st year at Auburn, It’s been a lot of fun,” said Spry. “We have had a ton of great Caribbean athletes from Jamaica, Trinidad (& Tobago), Bahamas… come through.”
Coach Rolle, who supervises the women’s sprints/hurdles and men’s short sprints/ hurdles is what Spry calls the “superstar behind the scenes.” The longtime head and assistant coach at the collegiate and IAAF level, has been the driving force behind Auburn’s development as a competitive option for future world class athletes desiring to attend university in the United States.
Rolle, who also serves on the coaching staff of the Bahamian National team, has direct ties to the Caribbean, obviously not limited to his native Bahamas. “I’m usually in tune with what’s going on in Jamaica.” said Rolle.
His recruitment has brought the likes of Olympic and World Championship medalists Kerron Stewart, in one of his strongest classes Trinidadian and Toboggan 100-meter Olympic finalist and relay medalist Marc Burns, and his compatriot Donald Thomas, the 2007 IAAF World Champion in the High Jump.
“Overall, I’ve had a great relationship ever since I started collegiate coaching with the Jamaican high school coaches”, said Rolle.
This connection is particularly potent when it comes to St. Jago High School. Forged during the days of Coach Raymond “KC” Graham’s tenure with the women’s team, Rolle’s relationship with perineal ISSA Athletics Championship and overall athletic, academic powerhouse has proven fertile recruiting ground, producing the likes of Stewart, Michelle Williamson, Jovanee Jarett and Tamara Thomas who helped power the Auburn women’s team to a NCAA National Championship. More recently, the bulk of the stars from the 2016 class (Chambers, Whyte and Allen) are proud products of the Spanish Town school.
The trio would unite with the likes of Wolmer’s Boys and Girl’s standouts Odean Skeen (who transferred from South Plains junior college) and Jonielle Smith, along Sashel Brown of Alpha Academy, as well as Bahamians Teray Smith and Jenae Ambrose to create formidable 4×400 and 4×100 meter relay teams that would contend in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and wider NCAA, along with countless individual feats and All-American honors.
The men’s 4×100 and mile relays would finish as runner-up’s in the NCAA and SEC championships respectively, with the latter relay claiming a Penn Relays Championship of America victory. Allen would punctuate his outdoor season with a couple of silver medals in the 400 meters at the aforementioned meets with a, then, PB (Personal Best) of 44.53 at the SEC’s. Chambers’ would echo Skeen’s Sub-10 momentum and run a 10.1 at NCAA’s.
On the women’s side, Whyte would go on to record a freshmen record at the SEC Championship 200 meter prelims of 22.77. In addition, teaming up with Smith, Brown and Ambrose at Penn Relays for a 400-meter relay school record 43.02.
For Bloomfield, a Kingston College Alum, Rolle had to tap into his general network of high school coaches and athletic administrators in Jamaica. Nonetheless, Bloomfield embraced their greater commonality, appreciating the abundant presence of his siblings of the soil.
“They played a factor into me coming to Auburn as well, because you always want to be around friends and people that you know. So I had no problem coming here and part of a team with them”, he said.
This paid dividends for the program.
Bloomfield was the prize of the crew coming in and improved upon his junior Champs record at the NCAA East Regional qualifiers where he ran a 44.74.
“I think my proudest moment indoor was when I got second indoors at the SECs (SEC Championships) my PR at (NCAA)Regionals”, said Bloomfield.
Despite the eventual success, similar to many of his fellow Jamaican freshmen, he experienced major adjustments “I had never run indoor before, so it was a learning experience for me and the volume of running I had to do, since indoor is a completely different season from outdoor season; there are a lot of races to do indoor than outdoor.”
According to coach Spry, Indoor, especially for taller athletes like 6 feet 4 inches Bloomfield, “when you’re tall like that with all the sharp turns, there’s a huge adjustment to make.” He continued, “a lot of those guys had never run indoor before, so I thought they did a good job of getting through that huge learning curve.”
For the rapidly approaching 2017-2018 seasons, expectations are pretty simple. “This year expectations will rise, I also think they will all mature and get better”, said Spry.
With sprinters like Skeen turning pro and Brown graduating, the core of newcomers last year return as full-seasoned sophomore vets for 2018, bringing along all the prudence that entails.
“My number one goal is health.” Said Bloomfield. “I missed out on a major opportunity last season, not being healthy. That should help with consistency in my performance.”
Health, or lack thereof, would be a thematic factor throughout the year, with Whyte failing to follow up her 200-meter PR in the finals of the SEC Championships or at Nationals due to a hamstring strain. Puma bound Skeen, would be plagued by a nagging injury also.
Coach Spry “Unfortunately we were swarmed by a slew of injuries at the National Championships, so that was a little let down. We didn’t have a really good national championships.”
This year recruiting has bolstered the optimism surrounding the Women’s sprints. With the addition of new faces like Excelsior’s Renee Shaw who should add to the depth, along with a few jumpers putting in relay duty and revamping the application of a few veterans, the sky is the limit.
“We have a very, very good 4×100, much better than last year”, Rolle said.
“Natalliah came in mid-year, so I kept her away from 100 meters last season to avoid injuries.” said Rolle. “I’m anticipating she will be a lot better at the shorter distance sprints (100 and the 200).”
With the close of last season inevitably bringing loses to the men’s sprint core, the guys will look to strategically fill in the gaps and attack this season with a selective focus on the 4×400 meter relay, open quarter-mile and 100 meters (60 meters indoor).
“Hopefully we will make a good run at it this year, and score as high as we possibly can” said Rolle.
For Coach Spry the plan right now simply is progress. “We are really excited them coming back and looking forward to see what they are capable of doing their sophomore year”.