For the first time in eight years, the Northwestern State track and field team hosts the Southland Conference Outdoor Championships at the Walter P. Ledet Track Complex Friday-Sunday in a high-powered meet showcasing some of the nation’s best performers.


Action begins Friday at 7:30 a.m. with the women’s 10,000 meter run with the men to follow 40 minutes later. Field events kick off at 10 with the men’s hammer throw.  The two-day multi-event competitions start at 9:30. There are no other races Friday.


Saturday’s schedule wraps up multi-events before qualifying heats in the running events begin at 2 and field event finals in five events start at 3. The meet peaks Sunday with finals in 25 events, starting with field events at 10 a.m. with racing starting at noon.


Three-day all-session passes are $20 for adults, $10 for youth ages 6-17, and free for students presenting a current ID from any Southland member institution and children under 6. Single-day tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for youth, with Southland students and children free. A complete event-by-event schedule is available on the NSUDemons.com and Southland.org websites.


During the three-day competition involving 13 Southland women’s teams and 12 men’s squads, a total of 23 conference athletes who own marks ranked in the NCAA’s top 25 in their events will compete. There are 13 NCAA top 10 performances, including second-ranked Sarea Alexander of Incarnate Word in the women’s long jump.


That event is the highlight of Friday’s schedule because it pairs Alexander (21-8) and NSU’s Jasmyn Steels, who won the NCAA Indoor championship in March and is fourth-ranked nationally outdoors with a 21-4 ¾ best. That competition begins at 3 p.m.


“There’s a lot of great athletes in this conference,” said NSU head coach Mike Heimerman, who has coached or competed in the Southland since 1996. “The Southland is probably one of the best non-power five conferences every year in track and field, and rivals some of those brand names like the Big Ten or the Pac 12.”


Heimerman says that his athletes will get a boost being at home.


“It’s a big thing for us, competing at home,” said Heimerman. “Our kids do a very good job here, and everybody likes defending their turf.”


Both genders have many athletes in a favorable position to challenge for event championships including five returning champions from 2018.


Micah Larkins ranks as the conference’s leader and the nation’s seventh-best in the 100 with a time of 10.10 (wind +2.8). The two-time relay All-American is also part of the 4×100 relay team (39.51) that currently ranks 20th nationally and second in the SLC with Eddie Clarke, Tre’Darius Carr and Javin Arrington. The senior won the 100 last season with a school record tying 10.12 and was part of the winning 4×100 relay team (39.58) alongside returners Kie’Ave Harry and  Carr, and 2018 senior Amir James. The group ultimately finished seventh at the NCAA Championships, earning All-American status.


Returning champions for the Lady Demons include Natashia Jackson and Deja Moore, who were both part of the winning 4×100 relay team (44.75). Jackson, a junior, also racked up wins in the 4×400 relay (3:36.41) and the 400 dash (53.63) at the 2018 championships. With Jackson and Moore joined by Kimani Evans and Jayla Fields, the Lady Demons’ 4×100 squad is second in the Southland entering Sunday’s noon final.


Jackson also heads the field in the 400 (with a 2019 best of 53.69) and is part of the third-ranked 4×400 relay (3:43.10, joined by Diana Granados, Courtney Willis, Evans) going into the meet’s last event, to be run at 3:25 Sunday afternoon.


Others seek their first conference title with highly ranked marks in the league.


The Demons’ long jump squad owns the conference’s top three marks. JaCorious Jeter holds the nation’s 23rd-best and the conference’s top jump of 25-4 ½ while Markeit Steverson Jr. (24-9) and LaRon James (24-5 ¾) are second and third.


Kelsey Frank recently broke the 20-year-old school record in the javelin throw at 168-5. The senior ranks 23rd nationally and first in the conference by nearly 18 feet. She also won the 2017 outdoor conference title before redshirting in 2018.


Others within striking distance of their first outdoor championship include Collin Milton in the men’s javelin (ranked first, 204-4), Tremayne Flagler in the 110 hurdles (second, 13.98), Ceaser Stephens in the triple jump (second, 50-10) and Lauren Clarke in both the women’s high jump (second, 5-8) and triple jump (third 41-9 ¼).


The Demons last won the Southland outdoor championship in 2002 and seek their fourth title. The Lady Demons are seeking the first women’s crown in school history.


Heimerman says that the goal is the same for both the Demons and Lady Demons.  Last year, the NSU women were third and the men finished fifth at the Southland Outdoors, while in February at the 2019 Southland Indoors, the Lady Demons finished second and the Demons were fifth.


“We’re going to go out and put on a good show for Natchitoches and hopefully raise a few trophies. Our goal is to be top three in both genders,” he said.


“We’re going to give it everything we have. On the women’s side, we’ve never won a conference title. We have gotten second a few times, and third a lot,” said Heimerman. “There’s going to be some teams out there that are going to do everything they can to hold us down, but I believe we can be top three easily if we do things right.


“The men may have a tougher battle, but we can be anywhere from second on down. We are a little thin in certain spots and we have a couple of injuries that were trying to work through. There are some teams doing a really good job, but we’re certainly going to give them a fight.”


Heimerman says Sam Houston State, the defending 2019 Indoors and 2018 Outdoors champion, Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian are the top contenders in the men’s team standings. In the women’s competition, 2019 Indoors winner SFA, a rising Incarnate Word program, and ACU appear to be well positioned to challenge for the team title, with defending outdoor champ Sam Houston always a threat.


“The conference as a whole has gotten a lot more competitive in the past couple of years, and that means points will be at a premium,” he said.


After the Southland Outdoors, NSU’s teams head to Lake Charles for the McNeese Last Chance Meet on May 11 where athletes who don’t already qualify for the NCAA East Preliminaries will have a final chance to do so. It’s a good bet that many NCAA East rankings will be enhanced this weekend at the Walter P. Ledet Track Complex.