For the first time in school history, a female athlete from New Mexico Highlands University is a national champion.
Jillisa Grant earned that distinction by winning the long jump late Thursday in the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships, a meet being hosted by Cal State-Stanislaus in Turlock, Calif.
Highlands scored team points in several other events and wound up tied for 13th in the women’s team standings. There were more than 60 schools represented in the meet.
Grant set the tone early in the three-day meet with her long jump title.
The Highlands junior had an opening jump of 19-9 1/2, but she slid to second place when Stephanie LeFever of Cal-San Diego posted a 19-10 3/4 in the third round. Then on Grant’s fifth try — and second-to-last jump — she cleared 20-10 1/2.
That mark held up as untouchable, with LeFever coming closest with a jump of 20-3 1/2 — a full 7 inches shy — on her last attempt.
“The wind was up and down, straight, and then sideways, she was having trouble getting on the board,” said NMHU head coach Bob DeVries via a news release. “Coach (Patrick) Johnson and I had her make a pretty big adjustment and she bombed one out there. You could hear it, we knew it was a big jump.”
Grant, who had won her preliminary heat of the 200-meter dash with a time of 24.4 seconds, ran a 24.16 in Saturday evening’s final, good for seventh place. Shannon Gagne of New Haven won the race with a time of 23.43.
Grant ran fifth in the 400-meter dash final, clocking a 56.06. Gagne of New Haven won in 53.62.
Highlands’ 400-meter relay team of Qiauna Fair, Fiona James, Grant and Shaneika Rochester posted the third-fastest qualifying time (45.86 seconds) in the preliminary heats. The Cowgirls placed seventh in Saturday’s final with a 46.61; Lincoln (Mo.) won in 44.57.
After besting the likes of Adams State in the early heats, DeVries said he liked what he saw from his group.
“We knew we could run faster than we had,” said DeVries. “We had missed a hand-off at the RMAC meet, so this was a bit of redemption for the team.”
NMHU’s 1,600-meter relay foursome of Marvia Lewin, Fiona James, LaShondra Ray and Grant finished 12th in the prelims with a time of 3:51.69 and did not qualify for the finals. Less than four seconds separated the Cowgirls and the time made by final qualifier Grand Valley State (3:47.8).
With eight athletes qualifying, NMHU had its largest contingent in the program’s history.
Grand Valley State (Mich.) piled up 82.5 team points in capturing the women’s team championship.
Lincoln (Mo.) was second with 68, and Adams State, Highlands’ Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference rival, was third with 51.
NMHU briefly was in third place in the overall standings, boosted by Grant’s early victory. As late as Saturday night, the Cowgirls were in the top 10.
The team stalled at 18 points and slipped to a tie for 13th with Shippensburg. NMHU was third among the RMAC schools competing, trailing only Adams State and Western State, which finished eighth with 28 points.
Going into the nationals weekend, Grant led the nation in the long jump with a 20-5, a mark she improved upon by 5 1/2 inches.
NMHU’s Rochester (100-meter dash) and Carissa Alexander (javelin) had also qualified for individual events.
Arianna Andreatta was an NMHU alternate in the mile relay.
Abilene Christian edged Adams State to clinch the NCAA Division II men’s championship.
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Grant was RMAC Outdoor Track and Field Women’s Athlete of the Year this spring. NMHU received 16 All-Region awards. The Highlands women also concluded the regular season as the No. 12 ranked team in the nation in NCAA Division II.