May 12, 2000
By Linda Chalich
You'd hardly expect speed from someone whose teammates refer to as "Grandma."
Yet, Francesca Green Sewell, a fifth-year senior on the Cougar women's track and field team, has seen the program go from dead last to third place in the highly competitive and prestigious Pac-10 Conference Track & Field. A two-time team captain and multiple-event competitor, not only is Sewell responsible for scoring many of the points for the Washington State women, she also had a hand in changing the direction of the program through the recruiting process.
Sewell was recruited out of Kamiaken High in Kennewick, Washington. She credits former jumps coach Lissa Olson with making her feel comfortable about coming to WSU and not letting Sewell in on the lack of success of the program in recent years.
Her freshman season was the first year the WSU men's and women's track programs were combined under head coach Rick Sloan. For the women, the transition wasn't always smooth.
"I didn't hang out with any girls on the team and they didn't like me because I was halfway decent and I got along really well with Coach Sloan," Sewell remembers. "Everyone wanted the approval and attention of Coach Sloan because if he says anything to you, that's amazing. I didn't see that because I was working with him everyday."
Sewell went on to win the long jump at the Pac-10 Championships and placed fourth at the NCAA Championships, earning All-American honors. In addition to also competing in the high jump, the 100m dash, and running on the relay team that spring, she also hosted several recruits, including a California sprint duo named Higgins.
"Their (prospective student-athlete) questionnaires showed up on my desk the same day and were the only two that came that day," WSU assistant coach Mark Macdonald. "I remember opening one and looking at Higgins and then opening the next one and saw Higgins. My first thought was that this person sent two but then I looked at the first names and saw they were different. So I thought they must be sisters but looked at the addresses and parents' names and saw they didn't even know each other."
Both Higgins came to WSU for their official visit on the same weekend and both verbally committed to the Cougars on the same day. They even roomed together as freshmen in the dorm.
"They were a package deal without really being a package deal," Macdonald recalls. "It was a weird coincidence."
Attrina Higgins, from Chino, and Sharika Higgins, from Oxnard, were less known in the collegiate recruiting ranks since neither made it to the California state high school meets. But LaTroya Mucker, from Los Angeles, had established a solid name for herself as a prep sprinter, and commit to the Cougs in July.
"I came on my recruiting visit with an open mind," Sharika said. "I'd lived in California all my life and was only familiar with California. A Pac-10 school and away from home was a positive. I was recruited by USC, UCLA, the Arizona schools, and schools back East. I looked at their programs to see how many sprinters they had and where I'd be used the most. I looked at Washington State with its building program and thought I'd be most useful here."
The Crimson women's sprint dynasty was starting to take shape. During the 1997 indoor and outdoor seasons, the sprint corps was settling into the collegiate training and competitive mold. Sewell claimed ninth in the long jump and another All-America certificate at the NCAA Indoor Championships but in mid-March suffered a foot injury that sidelined her for the rest of the year. While a set-back for the team, it put Sewell back a year in eligibility - joining the class of Higgins, Higgins and Mucker.
Tamika Brown, an accomplished sprinter and junior that year, had no trouble stepping into a relay leg and with both Higgins and Mucker, set the school record in the 4x100m at 44.97 seconds.
By 1998, the women were referring to themselves as the FASTT Five: taking the first letters of the corps members in order of Francesca, Attrina, Sharika, Tamika, and 'Troya. Every relay practice was an open audition for the four spots. As Attrina started to work more on the high hurdles, the experienced senior, Brown, again stepped in to lead the three sophomores to many victories and another school record time of 44.78 seconds in the 4x100m.
All the pieces were falling into place in 1999. Freshmen Ellannee Richardson, Randi Smith and Whitney Evans joined the Wazzu sprint entourage and the practice competition for both the 4x100m and 4x400m relay spots became fierce. The results were more than noteworthy.
Attrina Higgins, Mucker, Richardson and Sewell were teamed for the Pac-10 Championships and ran a school-record and NCAA qualifying time of 44.50 seconds en route to the short relay title. Also at the Pac-10s, Sharika Higgins, Evans, Smith, and Richardson clocked a school-record time of 3:38.08 for fourth place in the 4x400m relay. The Cougar women captured points in all sprint events, hurdles and relays except the 100m dash. Their third place team finish, behind perennial national contenders UCLA and USC, was the best-ever in school history.
The 400m relay team advanced to the NCAA Championships but were not able to advance out of the preliminary heats.
The 2000 season has brought new twists and turns for the Cougar women. Richardson and Evans are out of action due to medical problems. Sewell's ankle feels like she's living up to her nickname. Mucker has been plagued for a month with a pulled hamstring and is not expected to compete at the Pac-10 Championships, May 20-21, at Eugene.
As the original sisters of speed graduate, they have left the WSU record book filled with their individual accomplishments in addition to their relay triumphs: Sewell ranks second in the 100m and the long jump, eighth in the high jump, and third in the triple jump, Sharika Higgins ranks fourth in both the 100m and 200m, and third in the 400m, Mucker ranks sixth in the 100m, fifth in the 200m, second in the 400m and seventh in the heptathlon, Attrina Higgins ranks seventh in both the 100m and 200m, and fifth in the 100m high hurdles.
"They were very competitive and very fast from the first year," Sloan said. "Now we have the reputation of a northern sprint school. Their versatility has been a big part of our success. Sprinters from Southern California are more willing to come (to WSU) now that we have established a national reputation. A good sprint corps is going to help us stay successful in years to come."
As the "sisters" leave the track world, all are prepared for bright futures.
"Fran told me on my recruiting visit that if I was really into my studies, then this was the place to be because there wasn't much to do other than that," Attrina Higgins said. "I wanted to do the books and the track at the same time and most of the other schools I looked at weren't interested in academics. I ran faster than I ever thought I would and I was able to maintain above a 3.0 (GPA) the whole time I was here."
Attrina Higgins received her BA in Communications this month and hopes to return to the Xerox Corporation where she did an internship in sales last summer.
Sharika Higgins has spent every summer in Pullman, attending summer school and continuing her training, going home only during Christmas breaks. "I was here for a purpose: school, track and get a degree," Higgins said. "I was able to finish with two degrees (Criminal Justice and Political Science), so summer school really helped."
Mucker will receive her General Humanities degree at the completion of summer school.
Sewell received her masters degree in Higher Education Administration and will pursue a career in coaching. "I love the challenge of competing in something for almost my entire life, learning so much about the sport and then to be able to turn around and instill that love and that drive in someone else. Track and field has totally shaped my life into the person that I am as well as the athlete that I've become."
"When we get recruits, we tell them we have come a long ways and we're only going to go up further," Sharika Higgins declares. "We have great athletes coming in who can make a great contribution here."
"There's no turning back now, it can only get better," Sewell summarizes.