Everyone knows the names. Yvette. Kellie. Francena.
Hampton track and field coach Maurice Pierce's next goal is to construct a formidable, top-to-bottom team, and the first step is keeping the area's best talent at HU.
The Lady Pirates' profile has skyrocketed with the likes of Yvette Lewis, a product of Menchville High who was a two-time national champion at HU in the triple jump before winning a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2011 Pan-American Games. Other luminary names followed: Kellie Wells, the 2011 USA Track & Field national champion in the 100-meter hurdles before winning a gold medal in last September's world championships; and Francena McCorory, a 14-time state titlist at Bethel High who won three NCAA championships at HU before anchoring the U.S. 4x400-meter relay team to a world championship gold medal.
But even given such extraordinary individual success, "We've still got to fight high school coaches and club coaches to get a kid to come here," said Pierce, who regularly runs up against a desire to compete at larger, more recognized Division I schools. "Everybody can't go to LSU, because everybody can't compete in the SEC."
At HU, Pierce argues, athletes can develop their talent while competing every day.
"They still say, 'I don't know if I want to stay home,' " Pierce said. "I can go to Maryland or Prince George County, and they're trying to bust down the door to get here. If I could keep all the local talent right here, I'd be a threat to win a national (team) title. But I'm not going to cry over spilled milk. I'm going to keep recruiting."
That is obvious in Pierce's 2012 team, brimming with 757-area talent.
In the Lady Pirates' last meet, a rain-shortened event at William and Mary this past weekend, sophomore Teiara Denmark of First Colonial High in Virginia Beach won the long jump and the triple jump. Sophomore Cydney Robinson, a sophomore out of Churchland High in Portsmouth, won the 400 meters, while a 4x100 relay team made up of three local products — sophomore Breana Norman of Landstown High in Virginia Beach; freshman Cassandra Jones of Granby High in Norfolk; and sophomore Emmy Fraenk of Bethel in Hampton — took first place.
The list of accolades — which also included second-place finishes in the long and triple jumps by senior Ermesha Fair out of Western Branch in Chesapeake — indicates not only Pierce's focus on local talent, but his ability to put that talent to its best use.
Norman, for instance, was a hurdles specialist at Landstown, where she also played basketball. Impressed with the athleticism necessary to transition quickly between those sports, Pierce thought he might also have a sprinter on his hands.
Norman is in the process of proving him right, finishing third in her first 100-meter dash of the outdoor season at the Wake Forest Open on March 19 and fourth in the 200 meters while helping the 4x100 relay team to a third-place finish.
"They didn't know how fast she was," Pierce said. "I think I have a good eye for talent, and I know how to develop the kids. She's a prime example of it."
Norman, offered partial scholarships from other schools but a full ride at HU, said the program's tradition was a major factor in her choice. So was Pierce's confidence in her.
"He really believed in me, and I appreciated it," she said. "He's a very blunt person. If he says it, it's the truth."
Like other new HU arrivals, Norman was introduced to HU with a rigorous fall training program that includes a two-mile run around the campus.
"The campus loop," moaned Denmark. "Two miles. I never ran two miles in my life. It was a struggle, but it made me better."
Denmark is another example of Pierce's non-traditional methods. A 5-foot-2 former cheerleader who went out for track to stay in shape, Denmark — named the HU athlete of the week after her performance at the Tribe Invitational, which also included a second-place finish in the 100 meters — said she'd never been on a winning team until she got to Hampton.
She credits Pierce with much of her newfound success.
"Without the discipline, I feel like the team would fall apart," Denmark said. "When he coaches, he attacks exactly what you need to move forward."
Fraenk had some ground to make up at HU after a senior season at Hampton Roads Academy, where she didn't face the caliber of competition she did at Bethel.
"At Bethel, I accomplished a lot my first year. I had a lot of goals for my senior year," said Fraenk, originally from St. Martin. "At HRA, it was challenging to run fast times without as much competition. My freshman year was very challenging, the transition from HRA to college. But I think I adjusted well."
At the Wake Forest Open, Fraenk finished fourth in the 400 meters, in a time of 55.91 that has her confident she can reach her goal of 52 seconds — which would also qualify her for the St. Martin Olympic team.
At the same meet, Jones finished second in the 400 in 55.27 seconds — behind McCorory, who won the event in 52.58.
"I admire Francena a lot," Fraenk said. "(At Bethel), I would see her picture all over school. My coach and I would look at her races. He said we ran similar. She's a role model, (but) I don't want to be known as Francena. I want to be known as Emmy Fraenk."
Jones is more blunt.
"I came here because I wanted to be better than Francena, so I'm hoping I can bring my time down enough to break her records," she said.
Therein lies another challenge for Pierce: encouraging his athletes' goals while tempering them with reality.
"Sometimes kids say, 'I want to run as fast as Fran,' " Pierce said. "I've got to sit them down and have a reality conversation and say, 'Well, let's reach A, B and C goals first.' "
Pierce's current talent is obvious. The Lady Pirates won their second consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference indoor title and ninth out of the last 10 in February before finishing 13th in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Indoor Championships in early March. Pierce now wants that talent to translate into a team that can win the ECAC, be annually ranked among the top 20 teams in the nation and finish in the top 10.
"Yvette really opened the doors, and then Francena just allowed us to really attract the big-time local athlete, not just the average local athlete," Pierce said. "They understand it's OK to stay here and go to Hampton and have the ability to get the same success that Fran did, or the success that you can get anywhere else."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun