Home Grown

The fact Mountaineer women's track and field coach Sean Cleary will accompany more athletes to the NCAA outdoor championships this weekend than have ever made it to the national meet from WVU in any single year is not a monumental surprise. But the success Cleary has had with West Virginia natives on his roster has stunned his contemporaries.

Among the school-record seven Mountaineers headed to Des Moines, Iowa for the national championships are a pair of in-state products who have gone from relative anonymity to the highest ranks of their sport in their years under Cleary's tutelage.

Fairview native Keri Bland and Buckhannon native Chelsea Carrier are not just standouts amongst their squad, or even only in the Big East Conference. Cleary said he thinks both have legitimate hopes of qualifying for the Olympics at some point.

Somehow, both managed to go relatively unnoticed (and, thus, were not heavily recruited) by most of the larger powers in women's track. Cleary gladly swooped in and took advantage.

"The first day we're allowed to visit high schools seniors is July 1. I sat in her home on July 2," Cleary recalled of Bland, a North Marion High alumna.

"This is a girl that was not recruited by one person in the country, which is shocking to me, really, because if you watched her run, you knew she was very, very good. A couple of smaller schools in the state got involved late in the process, wrote a letter or had a call...but I wanted her so badly that she was the first girl I visited that July."

It worked. Bland came to Morgantown, and the rest is program history.

"It's been a long time. It's been like five years," Bland said, looking back. "I've done a lot of stuff, and I don't want it to end. It's so close to ending, and I'm kind of sad about it, but it's been a good road."

She enters this weekend's outdoor national championships tied with former WVU women's track star Megan Metcalfe for the most All-America honors any Mountaineer athlete has ever earned, with nine.

Somehow, some way, Cleary saw that potential in her.

"I said, ‘You know, Keri, I really feel like you're a future star,'" Cleary said. "We talked about her eventually becoming a 4:30-something miler, and at that point I think she had run a 5:26 or 5:28 maybe. So it was really unthinkable to her that she could really improve that much, but if anyone watched her run in high school, she had enough speed to contend for a state title in the 400 and she could win the state cross country right out of the blocks.

"If she can pull something off this weekend, she will, in terms of that category, be the most highly-decorated first-team All-American [in WVU history]. It will be tough to watch her go."

Bland has done it all while dealing with multiple nagging injury issues with her feet, something Cleary believes has kept her from reaching even greater heights in her career.

"These last 18 months have been brutal on her," the coach said. "I wish I were talking to people today about her flying off the last corner and winning a national title -- and truly, nothing will surprise me. She could.

"But she's been knocked down with those feet of hers, and we're just looking for a break after the season. Then she'll have one more build-up before the Olympic trials next year. We think she's still got more running in her."

Carrier, who Cleary recruited out of Buckhannon Upshur High School one year after keeping Bland in West Virginia, certainly has more running left in her as well.

Just named the Mid-Atlantic Region Women's Field Athlete of the Year, Carrier will compete in the heptathlon and the 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA championships this weekend.

Like Bland, Carrier has Olympic aspirations as well.

"I think if Chelsea lived in any other country in the world, she'd be going to the [2012] Olympics," Cleary said. "She just happens to live in the best track and field country in the world, so that puts that into perspective a little bit.

"I think if Chelsea sticks with this sport for four more years, she's an Olympian. And I think if Chelsea can have one more step of improvement in the next few months, she'll go to the Olympic trials thinking she can make the [2012] Olympics. And rightly so."

Beyond that, Carrier has become the face of WVU's track program, exhibiting an attitude that Cleary said has made her one of the premier collegiate track athletes in the country.

"Chelsea is one of the more intimidating athletes as she walks," her coach said. "She just looks like she's going to kick your ass when she walks down a track."

Often, she does just that.

And just like Bland, she was largely unheralded on a national level coming out of high school.

"I was just happy to be a Division I athlete and coming to West Virginia," Carrier recalled. "I didn't realize I'd end up here. I thought I'd be okay, maybe among the top in the Big East, but I never thought I'd be a national qualifier, All-American.

"Four years ago, I never would have thought [that was possible]. It's every child's dream, but I never thought it would be a reality. It's very, very exciting. I mean, hard work pays off. I've been giving 100 percent at practices for four years."

Cleary's counterparts apparently recognize his eye for talent and his ability to develop his athletes, as he was named the Mid-Atlantic Region Women's Coach of the Year this week.

But even while his fellow coaches honored him, they also took advantage of the opportunity to chide him a bit.

"A lot of people tease me. They say, ‘You've had so many good West Virginia girls recently,'" Cleary said. "I say, ‘Well you didn't recruit them.' [They say] ‘Well, we couldn't really justify it.' Then don't come back four years later and start talking about it, because if you saw something, you should have recruited her.

"It was obvious that it was in these kids."


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