RILEY, STAFF CHANGING THE CULTURE OF VCU WOMEN'S TRACK & FIELD

In motion pictures, rain is often used as symbolism for a drastic change that is coming.

It should be no surprise then that Head Coach Jon Riley has made such an impact on the VCU Women's Track & Field program. Riley is all too familiar with the effects of heavy rain, he grew up in the ninth ward of New Orleans, the place that took the hardest of Hurricane Katrina's wrath.

"Hurricane Katrina was something that I'll never forget and I don't want anyone to ever have to go through something like that," Riley said. "It was an experience that has made me into the coach, father and person I am today."

Since being hired in August of 2008, Riley and his staff have changed the culture surrounding VCU women's track. That was clearer than ever this past weekend when the Rams raised some eyebrows with a fourth-place finish at the Colonial Athletic Association Championships. That came after four straight seasons of finishing in the bottom three.

Over a span of three seasons (2006-08), the Black & Gold saw two interim and one head coach oversee the program. In those three years, there was a total of four school records broken and a combined 100 points in three appearances at the conference meet.

This season alone, Riley and his staff has seen a total of 18 school records set and piled up 93.83 points at the conference meet.

"I can't say enough about the way our girls have performed all year," Riley said. "We really challenged them throughout the year and they stepped up their game every time. The sky is the limit for this group."

So the question is how did this happen?

"From day one, Jon and his staff hit the ground and haven't stopped," VCU Athletic Director Norwood Teague said. "The passion and dedication they have shown to their program and student-athlete is unmatched. As an administration, we are extremely excited about the future of VCU women's track & field."

"Passion" and "dedication" are two of the most frequent words used when talking about the coaching staff. Riley and his assistants, Ethan Tussing and Allyson Thomas, are always one of the first in the office and one of the last to leave, constantly working on finding new ways to improve the program.

"My staff and I are dedicated to this program and we love what we do," Riley said. "We are committed to doing whatever it takes to put our athletes in the best position to be successful, both on and off the track. Whether it's fundraising or researching events we're not that familiar with or working around an unforeseen winter, we'll do whatever it takes for these girls."

The culture and atmosphere surrounding the program when Riley arrived was filled with uncertainty: Uncertainty with the coaching staff, uncertainty on training, uncertainty with how to win.

"I hate to fail and that's what drives me to be the best at everything I do," Riley said. "I wanted to teach our student-athletes how to be better athletes, but even more importantly I wanted them to be better people."

Throughout the 2008-09, there were glimmers of what could be with Quina Fortune (New Orleans, La.) breaking the 200-meter dash record or Verniece Johnson setting all sorts of records in the long jump and heading to NCAA East Regionals. Slowly but surely, the culture was changing.

"It was important for our older, more experience girls to buy into what we were doing as a coaching staff," Riley said. "Verniece was huge for us last year and this year our three seniors [Karise Baxter, Sernarra Archie, Whitney Key] were outstanding. I can't say enough about the leadership they displayed on and off the track this year."

2009-10 was going to be a different year and that was obvious from the start.

Sporting one of the best recruiting classes in VCU women's track & field history, the Rams hit the track hard and at its first meet, freshman Dionna Hayes (Bowie, Md.) set a new school record in the 55-meter dash.

"We really recruited some quality kids for this year and we were expecting to break records with them," Riley said. "Were we expecting them to do it so quickly? No, but that just means we can set our sights even higher now."

Each week, there were more records set and more personal bests tallied. Every member of the VCU women's track & field roster has set at least one personal best under the current coaching staff.

So what's next?

"Winning the championship will be a goal every year, hopefully if we continue to improve at this rate we'll have a couple titles under our belt within the next 10 years," Riley said.

Every once in a while a rainbow appears after a heavy rain storm. Riley and his staff are doing one heck of a job painting this rainbow. 

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