JACKSONVILLE, Fla.- The North Carolina A&T men's track and field team has three athletes competing this weekend in their first NCAA Division I East Regional Preliminary Round hosted by the University of North Florida.
Freshman Keenan Smith, redshirt sophomore Paris Reddick-Simmons and senior Jared Baldwin are energized about their first ever appearance. Smith and Baldwin will be representing the Aggies in the men's triple jump and Simmons will be competing the 800 meters and 4x400 meter relay.
For Baldwin this accomplishment means a lot, as his collegiate career appeared to be coming to an end without the privilege of being a regional qualifier. That all changed for him roughly two weeks ago when he qualified for the regionals in the men's triple jump at A&T's Aggie Classic, a last chance meet held at Irwin Belk Track.
A last chance meet is designed to help athletes like Baldwin to take that one last opportunity at greatness. Baldwin jumped 49-feet, 7-inches to earn the 47th seed at the regional. Forty-eight athletes are seeded.
"In my mind I was just envisioning myself making it," Baldwin said about his Aggie Classic performance. "After I jumped I wasn't even 100 percent sure if I made it or not. But when I found out I made the cut it was such a relief."
However, Baldwin said he can't relax just yet because he still has a lot more work to do in Jacksonville.
"I was very excited, but I can't get too excited yet because I have a lot to accomplish here at regionals," said Baldwin, who will compete in the triple jump. "I have been practicing my run-ups, making sure my arms stay closer to my body and improving my landing. I plan on implementing these improvements and hopefully see a better end result."
As a recent graduate, Baldwin is not only trying to end his track and field career on a high note, he is also preparing himself for the life after. The jumper met the team in Jacksonville after he completed a job interview.
"This is a big time in life right now," he explained.
Baldwin is not the only athlete who has been waiting for the opportunity to compete in the regional. Distance runner Paris Simmons unfortunately missed the opportunity last year after sustaining a fractured ankle. His absence from a year ago serves as motivation.
Simmons explained, "With this being my first regionals, I am very excited and I plan on making it to nationals. I feel I should have been here last year."
In addition to performing well at the regional preliminary round and qualifying for the NCAA national championship, Simmons has even larger goals for himself. He points out that he is only six-tenths of a second away from qualifying for the Olympic trials in the 800 meters.
"I am focused on getting out and staying ahead and let them catch me. I have been working too hard to just jog," Simmons added.
Keenan Smith is in a different situation than the rest of his teammates, as he qualified for the regionalas a freshman. The rookie qualified for the regional at the International Friendship & Freedom Games held at Irwin Belk Track with a jump of 50-feet, 7 ½ inches. Three weeks ago at Irwin Belk Track, he finished fifth at the MEAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the long jump with a leap of 22-feet, 7-inches.
"I am happy to be here as a freshman, this shows me that I have the potential to go far during my time here at A&T," said Smith. "I have been working my technique and focusing on staying relaxed while I am here. I am making sure I jump my best."
The regionals begin Thursday. Baldwin and Smith will jump 4:30 p.m., Friday, in the first round of the triple jump. Simmons' preliminary race in the 800 starts Thursday at 8:10 p.m.