PITTSBURG — The Pittsburg State men’s and women’s track and field teams are headed to sunny Bradenton, Florida to compete in the 2016 NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships May 26-28.

Sixteen Gorillas — 11 women and five men – are making the trip, led by four athletes who qualified at the top of their respective events: Garrett Appier in the shot put, Tanner McNutt in the decathlon, Emilyn Dearman in the heptathlon and Emilee Iverson in the high jump.

Gorilla women hunting for team title

The PSU women’s track and field team enters the National Championships as the No. 1-ranked team in the country. For sophomore Courtney Nelson, part of the allure of competing in Florida at nationals is to prove that the women deserve that top spot.

Nelson, who is top four nationally in both the 400 meter and 100 meter hurdles, as well as a member of the Gorilla’s highly-ranked 4x100 meter relay team, had this to say about being part of such a strong team.

“It feels amazing to be a part of this team, because we have come a long way," she said. "In the past two years, we have won conference championships, the first since, I think, 2004. It feels good to become one as a team.”

This sentiment is shared by numerous other athletes on the team, including senior Cassie Caswell, the defending NCAA Division II Indoor National Champion in the shot put.

Caswell has qualified in three throwing events — shot put, discus, and the hammer throw – and she has set lofty expectations for both herself and her team.

“I want to win shot put, and I want to make podium in my other events,” Caswell said, “But the biggest goal is a team championship. I want to win a Women’s National Championship.”

Caswell went on to explain why she feels so strongly about wanting to win a team championship. “We have watched the boys be so talented for a long time and their dynasty, winning conference championships, while we sat back and took second a lot. It’s exciting to think we can do that on a national scale, especially over Lincoln — who is in our conference. We love upsets.”

In speaking to her coach and her teammates, the one word used most to describe Cassie is “competitor,” and her desire to compete is infectious. In fact, while each individual athlete seeks to place in or win their event, and the women do their best to bring home the team championship, there will also be a mini-competition between the three Gorilla women who qualified in the shot put.

Jena Black has qualified for both indoor and outdoor national championships in just her first full year as a member of the PSU track and field team.

“It feels so exciting qualifying for nationals as a freshman," she said. "Coming in, I didn’t have super-high expectations; I thought I was going to redshirt, but things got rolling, went out and competed, and now here we are.”

Beyond wanting to make the finals in shot put and hopefully making the podium, Black is just as concerned with how her teammates are performing.

“We all root for each other, every time. I love Cassie [Caswell]; I love Jaz [Jasmine Smith]. They are great. We feed off of each other; if one of us is doing well, the other two are pretty close behind,” said Black.

But, there is a friendly rivalry amongst the three women throwers, according to Black.

“We will play chase. Cassie will pop a fifty footer, and we will go after her. It’s so much fun. I love to compete against them.”

Jasmine Smith, the third woman to qualify in the shot put, agrees with the sentiments of her teammates.

“Our internal rivalry pushes us,” she added. “You are looking at three of the best throwers Pitt State has ever had, and the push we give each other, it’s amazing. We all want that top spot, but if one of us doesn’t do as well as we would like, we want one of our teammates to cover for us.”

When asked how each of them prepare for competing in the national championships, they all said they want to treat it like any other meet, but that task is not so simple, as Nelson says, “I just try to stay really calm and collected and try not to think about [my event] too much. But, in the back of my mind, I know this is the last meet of the year, so I prepare a little bit more for it. I try not to think about it [the National Championships], but I still think about it at the same time.”

From listening to music to prayer, each individual athlete prepares differently, but all work towards the same common goal, to perform at their best.

For the members of the Pitt State women’s track and field team, they want their best to help drive the team to the national title.

The 11 women who qualified for the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championship in Bradenton, FL, will begin their work towards a team championship on Thursday, concluding on Saturday. You can stream the action at NCAA.com each day. Tune in and cheer on the Gorillas.