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Morgan's presence still on track


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As Rochelle Stevens bends over in exhaustion and sweat pours down her face, the first person to offer consolation is Leonard Braxton, her former coach at Morgan State.

Braxton winks at hurdler Jack Pierce before his race, and gives a thumbs-up sign to sprinter Wenda Vereen.

They are forever linked, the last of the Morgan State University track greats.

"They are the best three athletes I ever coached, and maybe the best three in Morgan history," said Braxton, who coached at the school from 1977 through 1992 before leaving to coach at Arizona State. "Look around, there are no other black colleges here that have three athletes. None. It's a group of athletes Morgan may never get again."

All three participated in the USA Mobil Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hughes Stadium yesterday.

Stevens finished fourth in the 400 meters to earn a spot on the United States' 400-meter relay team that will participate in the World Championships later this summer. Pierce had a time of 13.23 to position himself in today's finals of the 110-meter hurdles.

Only Vereen left totally disappointed, failing to advance to today's 200-meter finals. Vereen ran in a time of 23.13 in the semifinals, finishing sixth in her heat.

"We keep in contact all the time, especially since we're all on the national and international circuit," said Stevens. "Wendy and I were freshman when Jack was a senior in 1984, so it's amazing how our relationship has grown. Believe me, we let people around the world know that you can make it at a small, black school with a lot of tradition.

"Sometimes when we're about to compete, we say go out and win one for Morgan. It's quite an accomplishment."

Braxton said Stevens, 28, was a "project" when she first came to Morgan, but yesterday the Memphis, Tenn., native wasn't far from her 1992 form when she won an Olympic silver medal on the Americans' 400-meter relay team.

Stevens started strongly, was tied for the lead going into the second curve, but did not have the kick as winner Jearl Miles, who finished in 50.90, or Kimberly Graham, who was second in 51.48. Stevens (51.97) made a late charge but could not catch Maicel Malone (51.56) for third.

"That wind took a lot out of me on the back side, and I should have gone a little slower," Stevens said. "I didn't have anything left. But I made the team, and still have a chance to show people that I'm the fastest 400-meter runner in the country."

Pierce, 33, has already proved he is one of the best in the world. He won a bronze in the 1992 Games. Not bad for a walk-on at Morgan.

But now he wants to prove again that he's one of the best, and the challenge comes when he's at an age when most athletes are on the decline. Pierce, however, had increased his workouts since last June.

It paid off yesterday as he charged through the final three hurdles to challenge Michael Dees, only to finish second. Dees won in 13.22.

"I turned my practice schedule up a little because I'm no longer in school, and I don't have that regular competition," Pierce said. "I've got a daughter now, and that takes away some of my time. But I still enjoy winning, and I want to medal up at the next Olympics."

Vereen, 29, wasn't that competitive yesterday. She was in the same heat as Gwen Torrence (22.36), Carlette Guidry (22.55), Daneete Young-Stone (22.56) and Zundra Feagin (22.83), who all made the finals.

"That's a tough group," said Braxton. "But don't worry, Wendy will come back strong. Remember, she is from Morgan, you know."

Tony Barton, from Milford Mill High, will compete in today's high jump final. He is one of the favorites along with Steve Smith and Charles Austin.

NOTES: Connie Price-Smith's shot put of 62 feet, 6 inches was good enough to win her sixth title and fourth in a row. . . . Derrick Adkins repeated as the 400-meter hurdles champion with a time of 48.44. . . . Allen Johnson was disqualified from the 110-meter hurdle prelims when he knocked down a hurdle and it bounced into the next lane, impeding the path of Tyrone Wheatley. Johnson was reinstated for the semifinals after a protest and had the fastest semifinal time of 13.00. . . . Scott Huffman won his third straight pole vault title, and his height of 19 feet, 1/4 -inch broke the old Hughes Stadium mark of 18-10 1/4 . . . . Gail Devers' 12.61 clocking in the 100-meter hurdles semifinals was the fastest in the world this year. . . . Michael Johnson had the fastest time in the world this year in the 200-meter semifinals with a clocking of 20.04.

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