June 5, 2013
June 6 - Elias Hakansson Feature
June 7 - Alexis Paine Feature
EUGENE, Ore. - They called it a leap of faith.
When the Alabama track and field program began recruiting Diondre Batsonin the summer of 2012, they were hoping the promising junior college sprinter would have the courage and inner drive to embrace the challenge of coming across the country to begin his Division I track career. They were hopeful that the allure of Alabama's revamped facilities and the opportunity of becoming a cornerstone in the rebirth of the Crimson Tide program would entice the northern California native to relocate more than 2,300 miles, far from his Sacramento home.
Most importantly, the Alabama staff's persistent recruiting approach made one thing clear to Batson: the opportunity they were offering, the full package - coaching, facilities, campus life, academic standards and expectations - would position him to reach his goal of becoming a world class sprinter.
The question remained: would Batson - a quiet yet immensely confident competitor, known for his smooth and effortless running style - take that leap of faith? (If only he were a long jumper, the metaphor would be perfect.)
"The first hurdle we had to clear was simply getting Diondre to come out and make a campus visit, take a look at the program and see how it meshed with his own lofty goals," says Alabama assistant coach for sprints/hurdles Matt Kane, the first staff hire made by Tide second-year head coach Dan Waters in the summer of 2011.
"We painted a picture showing Diondre we could help him reach those goals, that promised land. And based on the past couple months, he's clearly on his way to becoming an elite sprinter," adds Kane in praising Batson, one of four competitors who have qualified in the 100 and 200 meters, plus the 1x400 relay, in the upcoming 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships (June 5-8, in Eugene, Ore.).
Batson's resume in his short few months at Alabama is impressive: an eighth-place finish to earn All-America honors in the 2013 NCAA Indoor 200 meters; running the 100 meters in a scorching 10.06 at Georgia's Spec Towns Invitational (the fastest time in the world at that point); winning the SEC Outdoor 100 meters while placing third in the 200; and heading into the NCAA Outdoor meet with the fourth-best qualifying time in the 100 and ninth-best for the 200 (plus running the second leg on the top-seeded 4x100 relay).
Surprisingly, fate was on the Tide's side when Batson made his recruiting visit during the 2012 fall semester. The ideal time for such a visit would have been during the pageantry and delirious excitement of an Alabama home football weekend. But Batson's own football schedule at American River Junior College limited when he could tour the Tuscaloosa campus. He ultimately had to make a Sunday-Monday visit, during the start of the university's fall break no less. But it didn't matter - he was sold.
"That was a bad time for a campus visit, it was dead, nothing was happening," recalls Kane, who previously coached at the University of Oklahoma and is one of several members of the Alabama staff with ties to the track and field community in the state of Kansas.
"Luckily for us, Diondre is a very laid back California kid and it suited him here. He said, `If it's like this when it's boring, I'm gonna love it during the exciting times'. We ultimately were in a battle with a couple other schools looking to sign him, no doubt it still was a process. But that visit was a key factor in Diondre's decision."
Alabama's recruiting effort also received a boost from one of Batson's teammates at American River, distance runner Matt Airola, who already had signed on to join the Tide program starting with the 2013 spring semester.
"Matt and I had been talking and he kind of recruited me as well to go to Alabama," says Batson, who had benefitted greatly under the tutelage of American River's Rick Anderson and Mike Reid
"Once I made my visit, I loved it and the facilities are the best I've seen. I spent a day on campus and it was pretty `chill'. And of course, talking to Nick Saban always helps."
College football coaches often lend their assistance to other athletic programs during various recruiting visits, and such was the case during Batson's trip to Alabama. Saban - who a couple months later would guide the Tide to its third national title in the span of four years - made a bonus impact on Batson, a two-sport star who ranked as one of the top receivers on the American River football team.
"Coach Saban just said that he wants Alabama to be the best in everything and he will talk to any athlete that any of the coaches want," recalls Batson, who was unable to pursue a walk-on role with the Tide football team due to Saban's policy against his players competing in a second sport.
"It's always hard to give up football, but it came pretty easy because of the success I've been having in track and field," says Batson. "It's just tough, I know I could still play football but I can't do both at same time right now."
The Alabama football effect is not lost on the Tide track and field coaches.
"Alabama football is a tremendous selling factor, a highly-respected brand name that helps the entire university," says Kane. "People who are successful want to be around other successful people, even in another sport."
Waters, now in his second year directing Alabama track and field, spent the seven previous years as the recruiting coordinator and distance coach for a Texas A&M program that has won six NCAA team championships. Those valuable years gave him insight into the California junior college track and field subculture, which produced several future Texas A&M stars.
As luck would have it, one fateful day in his Alabama office, Waters played a hunch based on his past success with recruiting elite junior college talent.
"I told my assistants that day to take a look at the junior college results out in California, and there it was: a young man from northern California, Diondre Batson, had won the 2012 junior college titles in both the 100 and 200 meters," Waters said.
Members of the Alabama coaching staff also were on hand in Eugene for the 2012 Olympic Trials, where Batson was competing in the 200. The relatively quick recruiting process - as Batson was set to graduate from American River in December - was set in motion. Once Batson had signed with Alabama later that fall, it was simply a waiting game in anticipation of his arrival in Tuscaloosa ... accompanied by the Tide coaching staff holding their collective breath in hopes that no injuries befell their star recruit during the American River football season. Batson will begin what he hopes is four straight days of NCAA competition in Eugene on Wed., June 5, first in the 4x100 relay preliminaries (4:15 PT, 6:15 in Tuscaloosa) before looking to advance in the 100-meter prelims 90 minutes later. He then will compete in the 200-meter prelims on Thursday (4:15 PT), with the finals of the 100 slated for Friday at 5:10. Saturday mid-afternoon could be an exciting 40-minute stretch for Batson, as the 4x100 finals will start at 2:12 while the gun for the 200-m finals will sound at 2:50.
It's feasible to see Batson in contention during all three of the events, including the relay, as Alabama's "fantastic four" own the best qualifying time (39.09) among the 18 teams entered in the 4x100. The Tide relay quartet - consisting of leadoff man Alex Sanders, Batson, Akeem Haynes and anchor Dushane Farrier(all juniors, except for the senior Farrier) - nearly ran under 39 seconds during the final day of the NCAA East Regional in Greensboro, N.C. (May 25). Runner-up LSU, which had beaten Alabama 13 days earlier at the SEC Championships, finished a full 10th of a second behind the Tide in Greensboro (39.19).
Despite his breakthrough performances in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay, Batson surprisingly has been overlooked in various previews forecasting the 2013 NCAA competition. One preview in particular mentions five top competitors for the 100-meter title but Batson is not among them, despite his impressive win at the SEC Championships and the fourth-best qualifying time (10.15) among the 18 qualifiers in the 100.
Batson, whose 20.57 qualifying time is ninth-best in the 200-meter NCAA field, joins the following three standouts as the only 2013 NCAA competitors set to run in both the 100, 200 and 4x100-meter relay (times indicate qualifying marks in each event): LSU sophomore Aaron Ernest (10.20; 20.38; 39.19), TCU senior Charles Silmon (10.25; 20.23; 39.49) and Iowa senior Justin Austin (10.52; 20.53; 39.79).
Batson will be running in the third and final 100-meter preliminary heat, with the top-two finishers from each heat (plus the next-best two) advancing to Friday's final. TCU's Silmon is among the seven other entrants in Batson's 100-meter heat, but the only three sprinters with better qualifying time than Batson each are running in one of the other two heats: Mississippi's Isiah Young (10.01), Florida State's Dentarius Locke (10.05) and surprising Anaso Jobadwana of Jackson State (10.10).
The 12 sprinters who have qualified for the NCAAs in both the 100 and 200 - in addition to Batson, Ernest, Young, Silmon, Austin and Jobadwana (sounds like quite an elite, or eclectic, accounting firm) - include the likes of Texas A&M senior Ameer Webb (10.28; 20.39), seeded second in the 200, and USC junior Aaron Brown (10.25; 20.47).
Batson will be looking to improve at least one spot on his ninth-best qualifying time in the 200 prelims, in quest of a spot in the eight-runner final. His top competitors in that prelim (heat two) include the great name combination of Ernest & Young.
The 4x100 could prove to be yet another battle between SEC squads, as LSU (39.19), Florida (39.32) and Tennessee (39.58) join the Tide (39.09) among the top five qualifying relay teams (TCU earned entry with a top time of 39.49).
Key factors behind Batson's impressive displays in the 100 meters this spring have included an ever-important patience through the first 30 meters, followed by an explosion as he takes things to another notch, leading to a devastating final push across the tape for the 6-foot-2, 180-pound speedster.
"The first thing for Diondre is having the right approach through the first 30 meters, because when he stands up and gets tall, he's a big guy, he really hits the ground hard," says Kane. "It was obvious from day one that Diondre has tremendous physical tools needed to become very successful. But as you are around him you also can appreciate his great mental tools. He has a true understanding of the various events and knows how to train for them in an aggressive, winning fashion."
Despite being at Alabama for only five months, Batson has burst onto the scene following an initial deliberate approach.
"With someone like Diondre, you are working with the best set of tools you can imagine but there still were areas he had to improve on, such as basic consistency and getting stronger," explains Kane.
"We brought him along slowly during the indoor season, with the top priority being the outdoor. A month into the indoor season, in mid-February, the team as a whole had a key turning point in our event at Nebraska and that's also when things started coming together for Diondre."
A couple weeks after the team had returned from the success in Lincoln, Batson made his mark at the SEC Indoor meet - placing fourth in the 200 meters with a time of 20.81 (the collegiate indoor season does not feature a 100-meter race but rather a shorter 60-m). Batson nearly cracked the top-three in that elite 200-meter competition, finishing behind only Ernest (20.53), Florida's Dedric Dukes (20.70) and Webb (20.75). He went on to earn All-America honors at the NCAA Indoor meet in Fayetteville, Ark., placing eighth in the nation (20.97, after running a prelim time of 20.81).
"The SEC Indoor meet was Diondre's chance to measure himself and see where he fit in while racing against some elite fellow sprinters," says Kane. "I know he shocked a lot of people and made a big splash. He showed he could hold his own with those guys."
Three months later, Batson again was runner side-by-side with his conference rivals at the SEC Outdoor meet in Columbia, Mo. This time, nobody finished ahead of him in the 100 meters (10.12) and only two SEC runners bested him in the 200 (20.52). He became the first Alabama male sprinter ever to couple winning the SEC 100-meter with finishing in the top-three of the 200 at the same meet. His win in the SEC 100 represented outperforming three of the nation's best, in Young (10.14), Ernest (10.20) and Webb (10.29).
Reaching the NCAA finals - and competing for the title - in both the 100 and 200 already would be a tremendous dual accomplishment, but Batson also has a good chance to be competing in the 4x100 finals, along with three of his closest friends.
"We're all really close, so having them at the NCAAs makes everything so much easier and less stressful for me," says Batson. "It's more laid back with those guys around. We're always taking and playing around, just joking and having fun."
The relay teammates call their leadoff runner Sanders "grandpa," because he's "old school and listens to a lot of old-style music," laughs Batson. "Alex also is my roommate when we travel and we just sit in our room sometimes and listen to old-school music, like Michael Jackson and Patti LaBelle."
After Batson completes the second leg of the relay, he hands off the baton to Haynes. "Akeem is one of the best turn runners and a great starter, plus a very hard worker," notes Batson. "And he's my roommate back home, at school. He keeps me eating healthy.
Farrier, known for his fun-loving persona, anchors the relay unit. "Dushane is a character, a funny guy and we joke with him a lot. He's one of those people who asks a lot of questions when he already knows the answers. It's great being around him," says Batson.
A guiding force in Batson's career has been his mother Sonja Batson, who has firsthand knowledge of the sport as a former track athlete at the University of Oklahoma. In stark contrast to her son's quiet and reserved personality, Sonja Batson is a spirited supporter of her only child and a stern taskmaster in directing Diondre towards his athletic and academic goals.
"A few years ago, my mom and I sat down and talked about what I want out of life and what's important to me," recalls Batson. "I just told her that I wanted to be the best and she told I me I had to start working hard in order to reach my goals. I've been working hard ever since to get the most out of life. To be the best, you have to work hard at it."
With the NCAAs arriving and Batson surprisingly garnering minimal hype, the Alabama sprinter and his event coach clearly are more focused on the track than the media transcripts.
"All my life I've been content to be the underdog and that's the same for Diondre," says Kane. "He doesn't sweat those things and has the right personality for this event. He's mentally tough and once again will have the chance to prove his talent this week.
"In my mind, the elite athletes who don't talk a big game ultimately are the best. They just bring it on the track."
Batson does not have a recipe for the perfect race, but his key ingredient is a simple one: stay relaxed and it all will come easy.
"When I'm going into a race I just tell myself that nobody can beat me. I have the most confidence in the world in myself," says Batson, who began competing as a sprinter at age six but later dabbled in longer distances and hurdles before locking into the sprint events during his junior season at Laguna Creek High School.
"People not writing much about me really is not a problem for me," he says. "I don't really care about stuff like that. This is the last weekend, so it should be interesting, People will know who I am after this week."
by Pete LaFleur for RollTide.com