Jibri Victorian fields a lot of questions about his school.
“Where is Coppin State?” is one. “Is Coppin State even a D-I school?” is another. But more recently, there has been this: “How can I get involved in Coppin State's track program?”
It's a welcome change in tone.
A Laurel native, Victorian has become the poster child of the Eagles' track and field program. He will run in his third straight NCAA Division I outdoor track and field championships tonight in the semifinals of the 400-meter hurdles.
No other male Coppin State athlete has achieved that feat. He's also the only Coppin State athlete to travel to Eugene, Ore., for this week's NCAA championships.
Victorian, a senior, will bear the Coppin State name on his jersey for the last time when he takes the track at Heyward Field this week.
Some of his opponents won't know where Coppin State is or who he is. But Victorian will try to change that.
“It's been my goal since I got to Coppin,” Victorian said. “People are going to know who I am. People are going to know who Coppin State University is. I need to go out there and compete to the best of my abilities so, when I finish this race, people will know where I come from and what I represent.”
When he was an upperclassman at Laurel High, Victorian's inexperience in track and field showed. Though he found track fun, he acknowledged that he wasn't very good. He started running his junior year.
He didn't even try distance hurdles until senior year. It was his least favorite event after he posted a time of more than 60 seconds in his first 400-meter race.
But Coppin State coach Carl Hicks saw 400-meter hurdling potential in an athlete who had raced just one year. He offered Victorian a partial scholarship, something he said was “low-risk.” Victorian signed his national letter of intent to Coppin State in late July 2009.
“It's always a gamble when you're recruiting athletes,” Hicks said. “If he doesn't improve, it doesn't hurt. And if he does improve, we can invest even more in him. That's the plan, that's the goal and that's what happened.”
In his freshman year of college, under Hicks' direction, Victorian lowered his personal-best time from more than 54 seconds to less than 52. As a sophomore, he earned the final qualifying spot in the East Regional for the NCAA outdoor championships.
As a junior, he saw his personal best drop to a school-record 50.10 seconds in the regional meet, in which he qualified fourth overall for the NCAA championships. But when he arrived back in Maryland, he came down with the flu and strep throat.
At the NCAAs, he didn't make it out of the first heat. Only weeks later, at the 2012 Olympic trials, Victorian had an equally lackluster performance.
At the start of this season, Victorian suffered another setback when his shinsplints opened during a training routine. He couldn't walk for days and was out for nearly a month.
“I thought I was done after that. I was scared my career would be over,” Victorian said. “After it healed up, I knew I had to go twice as hard now as I did to get to where I was.”
Victorian recovered, and again he excelled. On May 4, he won his first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title in the 400 hurdles with a season-best time of 50.77.
“After winning MEACs, that was what boosted my confidence to the point where I was like, regardless of how I run, this is going to be a good year,” Victorian said.
A week later, he won another title in the 400 hurdles at the IC4A Championships at Princeton. Back at 100 percent, he said, he automatically qualified for a spot in Eugene after finishing in the top three of his quarterfinal heat at NCAA East Regional on May 24.
In doing so, he became only the second Coppin State athlete to qualify for three straight NCAA outdoor meets.
This time, he's confident he won't face another setback before race day.
“I'm ready to make it to finals,” Victorian said. “I mean, this is it. Of course, I'm going to try to run professionally, but this is my last college meet. I'm not going to let anything stop me at this point.”
As his career has evolved, so has his popularity — and Coppin State's — on the track. Competitors from schools such as South Carolina and LSU tell Victorian they admire what he's done.
Hicks said Victorian's successes are one of many points he has used to woo prospective athletes.
Likening what he has done at Coppin State to the way “Charm City” came to be, Victorian said he's trying to change people's long-standing beliefs about his school's track program, one race at a time.
The results speak for themselves — he didn't need to be at a major program to succeed at the national level.
“Now, more than ever, I'm proud to have ‘Coppin State' on my chest when I run,” Victorian said. “It really doesn't matter where you go. If you trust in your training, your coach and yourself, anything is possible. You can go as far as you want to go.”
NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championship
Men's 400-meter hurdles
Wednesday, 9:15 p.m.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun