By Doug Gorman
When the Clayton College and State University track and field team looks back on the 2004 season, there will be plenty of stories to share.
This was by far the best season in the history of the program as six athletes earned a spot at the NCAA Division II track championships.
Four of those athletes, all members of the 4x400 relay team, were selected as All-American selections after finishing sixth overall.
Rother Heard, Carlos Guyton, Eric Simmons and Brian Etleman helped the Lakers relay team to the strong showing.
Simmons also competed in the 400 meters and Tony Juarez, a three-time provisional qualifier at the NCAA meet, ran in the 1500.
With its performance at the national meet last month in California, the Lakers silenced skeptics.
It's a sign the bar has been raised for the Clayton State track men's track team.
"I think our performance at the nationals gave us some bragging rights," said head coach Mike Mead.
Mead has built the program from scratch, taking a team known more for its fall cross country team and distance events in track to a squad capable of competing in sprints, distance and field events.
The Lakers didn't let the lack of an on-campus track facility derail its season.
Members of the Clayton State track team often piled into cars and drove to Tara Stadium in Jonesboro for practice.
"I think we surprised a lot of people with our performance in the sprints," Mead said. "Now people know we can compete in more than just distance races."
Simmons, who just completed his freshman year, came to the Lakers from Carrollton High School, one of the state's high school track powers. He quickly adjusted to college competition by breaking the school record three times in the 400.
"He steadily improved as the season went on," said Mead.
Clayton State didn't shy away from competing against more seasoned track programs. The Lakers 2004 slate included meets at Division I programs Georgia, Tennessee, Clemson and Georgia Tech.
"I think the season might have been a little too long for us," Mead said. "We are going to have to start being a little more selective when it comes to our schedule, but we held our own against some very good competition."
The Lakers will journey in to new territory this year when they compete in a brief indoor season. Juarez has completed his outdoor career at CCSU, but will be eligible for the indoor season.
With its recent success, interest in the Clayton State track team is rising.
"We are getting lots of responses from athletes interested in our program," he said.
Three athletes have committed to the men's track team and could become members of the Lakers track program once Mead gets in the required paperwork.
Mead is also hoping the women's program follows suit.
Former Lady Laker Joni Guffey helped put the Lady Lakers on the map, earning two-time All-American honors as a senior in the 1500 meters after finishing sixth in the 2002 season.
Some things haven't changed for the Lady Lakers.
Clayton State is still a distance-oriented squad with several key members coming back to the team next year.
Jonesboro resident Stephanie Gilbert, Heather Krehbiel, Brittney Precht, and South African Tanika Smit are all expected to contribute to the team.
Aletha Binion of Carrollton is the team's top competitor in the field events.
Soccer player Kristy Young and Dawn Baldwn, who played basketball for the Lady Lakers, have also expressed interest in joining the CCSU cross country and track team.