The UCF outdoor track & field team begins its NCAA postseason journey Thursday through Sunday as the Knights compete in the American Athletic Conference Championships in Storrs, Connecticut.
UCF is coming off tune-ups in Gainesville at the Tom Jones Memorial Invitational and its last home meet of the season at the Twilight Invitational in Orlando. The team closed the final month with two record-breaking performances in Gainesville and a second-place finish in Orlando.
Freshman Jenna Lucas topped her own school record in the javelin by more than seven feet with a toss of 45.59 meters. Freshman Laura Korsmit broke the record in the 3,000-meter with a time of 10:10.20.
"Over the last couple weekends, we've been doing really well. We look pretty good. The kids have just been trying to stay healthy and motivated," coach Jeanette Bolden said. "[We] are really looking to be in that top three in our conference."
Before switching conferences in 2013, UCF claimed four consecutive outdoor titles at the Conference USA Championships. This year, it's looking to create history, even with new challenges on the horizon.
Three new teams have joined the AAC's 12-team, two-division format: East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane. They add to a strong group that includes Cincinnati, Memphis, UConn and Southern Methodist University, which remains the front-runner after winning the title last season.
Additionally, a new schedule format approved by the NCAA will separate all womens and mens events on alternating days for conference, regional and national championships. In past years, both mens and womens championships competed on all four days.
This year, women will complete in all preliminaries and finals within two days, reducing rest times between events from a half-hour to 15-20 minutes.
"We've been working harder in practices to learn how to treat our bodies better and go through the pain and just deal with this new rule," redshirt senior Sandy Jean said. "Learning how to cope with the pain is an adversity that I think our team has been experiencing, because we've been really, really training very hard this year due to changes within the NCAA competition-wise."
Entering Thursday's AAC championships, UCF holds top conference marks in the 4x100-meter relay, which ran a season-best time of 44.34 seconds at the Twilight Invitational.
The lineup of senior Kirsten Nieuwendam, junior Briana Vaughn, redshirt junior Christal Peterson and sophomore J'Nea Bellamy recorded the eighth fastest time in the East Region and the team looks to repeat its first place finish from last year (44.87).
"The switcharound put us where we best fit with our improvements," Bellamy said. "Faster times are to come."
Bellamy also has the chance to defend her first-place finish in the 200-meter dash (23.38) and improve her second-place finish in the 100-meter dash (11.59).
She recorded a pair of top-five performances at the Mt. SAC Relays in California last April, placing fourth in the 200-meter dash with a time of 23.39 seconds and fifth in the 100-meter at 11.48 seconds.
Her 200-meter time was good for the fastest sprinter in the AAC this season and tenth best in the East Region, while her 100-meter time was .02 seconds shy of her personal-best, 11.46 seconds a week prior — second fastest in the AAC.
In the hurdles, both Jean and senior Devinn Cartwright have seen their finishing times regress back to the mean that won them first and third place finishes at AAC championships.
"I've been focusing on the last 200-meters of my race," Jean said. "Certainly this year, it's not been conducive to what I wanted it to be. These past two weeks I've been trying to focus on that."
Jean finished her last regular season meet with a season-best 58.64 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles, while Cartwright ran a personal best 13.90 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles.
UCF has gained three-straight Women's AAC Track Athlete of the Week honors and four overall this season. Korsmit, Bellamy and Peterson have all taken the honors while Nieuwendam notched hers back on March 24.
"I really, really believe, without a doubt, no matter what happens and what they look like prior to the meet, they are gamers," said Bolden. "They are young ladies that rise to the occasion."
Opening events begin at noon on Thursday with the women's heptathlon and close Sunday with the 4x1,600-meter relay.
Brian Goins is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @byBrianGoins or email him at BrianGCentralFloridaFuture.com.