Cowboy Enterprise: Home grown women's relay team looks to compete nationwide

LARAMIE, Wyo. -- Every time University of Wyoming track and field coach Don Yentes looks at his women's 4x400 indoor relay team, he can't help but smile. The team, composed of Amanda Hopper, Kima Wells, Shauna Smith and Jessica Fox, is something special. The team is special not only because it has collectively ran a national-caliber time in the event, but special because all of its members are former Wyoming high school standouts. Hopper is a freshman from Casper (Kelly Walsh), while Wells is a senior from Alpine (Star Valley). Smith is a junior from Sheridan and Fox is a junior from Burns. "A person never wants to say never, but this is something we may not see again in our lifetime," Yentes said. "It's like I told these young ladies way back in September, it's really something to have a 4x400 relay team all from Wyoming that's competing on a national level. What we're talking here is four sub-53-second 400s. It's amazing to have four girls from a state this size to run that fast." The Cowgirl 4x400 relay team set a new school record in the event a couple weeks ago at the Air Force Invitational when they turned in a NCAA provisional qualifying time of 3 minutes, 41.25 seconds. "The day we ran that time we won by 100 meters," Yentes said. "Amanda led off and got a big lead and it just got ridiculous from there. Our women basically ran by themselves." While the time is good, Yentes feels the Cowgirls still need to knock four seconds off to assure them a place in the NCAA meet. "I don't think 3:41.25 is going to hold up," Yentes said. "The time is short and there are not many opportunities left, but if we could run fresh and healthy, this group could go 3:36.0." Running fresh is a major concern in that Wells, Smith and Fox have other events in which they compete, also on a national level. Wells has also provisionally qualified for the NCAA Meet in the 60-meter dash with a time of 6.87 she turned in recently in the 55-meter-dash. Her time was converted to 7:38 for the 60. That time is also a Wyoming record for that event. "Kima is an extremely versatile sprinter," Yentes said. "She can do it all from the 60 to the 400 in national-caliber times. She's not very big, but she's explosive." This weekend Wyoming competes in the Iowa State Invitational in Ames, Iowa, and Wells is shooting for an NCAA qualifying time in the 400 meters. Smith has provisionally qualified for the NCAA Meet in the 60-meter hurdles in 8.33. That time is also a Wyoming record, breaking her old school mark of 8.47. "Shauna is a very good hurdler who is still learning the event," Yentes said. "She's only going to get better. We haven't run her in the 400 meters yet, but she'll qualify for the NCAA Meet in that event. It's only a matter of when and where." That when and where could also be this weekend at the Iowa State Invitational. Fox has already automatically qualified for the NCAA Meet in the 400 meters dash in 52.88. Her time not only eclipsed the Air Force Field House record, but set new Wyoming and Mountain West Conference records as well. The scary thing about Fox is she is still trying to work her way into shape after being slowed by a shin injury. "We think Jessica may finally be free of injury," Yentes said. "She has only been going full speed the last couple of weeks. Once she is able to train hard full-time, it's hard to say how fast she can run. She hasn't touched the surface of her ability yet." The 4x400 relay participants have had to share the limelight with Wyoming senior weightman Andrea Batt, who has also provisionally qualified for the NCAA Meet in two events -- the weight throw with a toss of 64-feet, 10 inches, and the shot put with a throw of 53-4. "Andrea is a tremendous all-around thrower," Yentes said. "She's very good in all the disciplines. She has a legitimate shot to be an All-American (top eight NCAA finish) in both events." The quality performances by Hopper, Wells, Smith, Fox and Batt have vaulted the Wyoming women's indoor track and field team into the national spotlight. The Cowgirls are ranked No. 12 in the country in the latest NCAA Power Rankings and No. 15 in the Ratings. The Power Rankings are put together by the United States Track Coaches Association (USTCA) and based on a team's two best performers in each event. Nebraska is ranked No. 1 in the country with 288 points, while Wyoming is 12th with 246. The poll is based on head-to-head competitions and how teams fare in major meets. "This is the best women's team I've been associated with in my seven years at Wyoming," Yentes said. "We are very well rounded. We have national caliber athletes in our sprints and throws." Yentes said although his Cowgirls are pointing to the Mountain West Conference meet Feb. 26-28 at the Air Force Academy, he wants to make sure they get through that meet healthy enough to compete in the NCAA Meet, which will be held in Fayetteville, Ark., two weeks after the MWC Meet. "We have a very good league and we could finish anywhere from first to fourth," Yentes said. "BYU, Colorado State and San Diego State all have good teams. We're pointing to that meet, but we must get through it healthy. There are not many chances to become an All-American, and that has to be a priority with so many individuals close to that level." The Wyoming men are not as strong as the women this season, but the Cowboys do have a pair of throwers in juniors Kyle Herl and Zack Schaefer who have shots at also becoming All-Americans. Herl has provisionally qualified for the NCAA Meet in two events -- the weight throw with a toss of 59-8, and the shot put, with a toss of 66-8. Schaefer has also provisionally qualified in the weight throw with a distance of 65-4. "Both Kyle and Zack could become All-Americans in the weight throw," Yentes added. "Last weekend at the Nebraska Invitational they competed against all the top throwers and Kyle finished sixth and Zack seventh."