Opposites Attract Attention

Howard will compete in the high jump at the NCAA Championships for Georgia Tech (Dyestat.com)
On the surface, Georgia Tech freshmen track and field standouts Jessica Graff and Chaunte Howard don't seem to have a lot in common. One is a former gymnast, one an ex basketball player. One is from Maryland, the other from California. There are countless differences and one common bond: both are capping tremendous rookie seasons with a trip to this weekend's NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Fayetteville, Ark.

"The things that they have in common is that they're both very tough competitors and very confident," said Tech women's head coach Alan Drosky, who thinks that both have a chance to earn All-American honors and help the Jackets score their first NCAA indoor points since 2000.

Riverside, California's Howard will compete in the high jump, while Graff, a native of Urbana, Md., will go in the pole vault.

On paper, Howard looks like the best bet for All-America honors as she has cleared 6'0.75" this season to rank second nationally entering the meet. She won the Atlantic Coast Conference title in the event and was named the league's Rookie of the Year for indoor track and field. Howard has won five of her seven high jump competitions this season.

Graff has also faired well as a rookie, winning three meets and breaking the school record in her first-ever collegiate competition. Her season-best mark of 13'2.50" was set at the Virginia Tech Last Chance Meet March 1 and ranks 16th-nationally.

According to Drosky, all parties involved were hopeful for this type of success. "We could definitely foresee this, especially with Chaunte," said Drosky of Howard, who won seven prep national titles while at J.W. North High School. "She is one of the best high jumpers in the country, period. In college, out of college and when she was in high school last year."

"All Chaunte had to do was jump as high as she did last year and she would be a national qualifier, but Jessie would have to vault higher," added Drosky. "She's gone from about a 12'7.00" vaulter to 13'2.00", which is a good improvement for her first year. We knew from the start that both Chaunte and Jessie were very talented"

But talent alone has not gotten this pair to the pinnacle of collegiate track and field. As stated earlier, both are extremely competitive and both also work with talented coaches in their specific events. Howard trains under seventh-year assistant Nat Page, while Graff works with Scott Bennett, who is in his first year at Georgia Tech. Bennett replaced Chris Huffins, who left Tech to become the head coach at California.

Drosky is very complimentary of his assistants and what they bring to the table. "Chaunte and Jessie both work with very good and successful coaches that are doing a great job of developing that talent."

Howard seconds that opinion of Page, who has guided Tech student-athletes to nine All-America performances. "He has a lot of experience in the event and obviously knows a lot more than I do having coached the American record holder (Tisha Waller) and also being a high jumper himself," said Howard. "He's really contributed to how well I've been doing this season."

When Huffins took the Cal job, Graff and the rest of the pole vaulters were left without a coach for five weeks before Bennett came on board.

"We have a lot of vaulters so we were helping each other and coaching each other," said Graff, who is a four-time Maryland state champ. "But we didn't actually have a coach. We do now and things are working out really well. We had a little time where we had trouble adjusting, but Coach Bennett knows a lot technically. And we get to vault a lot, which is good."

In addition to talent and a great coaching staff, both Graff and Howard have an intense inner drive to compete and do well.

Jessica Graff
"Jessie is a great competitor," said Drosky. "She is very motivated and wants to be very successful. One of her strengths is that if Coach Bennett tells her what she needs to do, she does it. She has a good deal of trust and faith in her own abilities."

This trust in her talents will play a big role this weekend, when Graff will face the most talented field of her young college career. "I feel that whatever meet I'm going to, it doesn't matter who is there competing," said Graff, who is one of just three freshmen pole vaulters at this year's NCAA Championships. "That doesn't affect what I'm doing. It can make a meet more important, but when I am focused it doesn't matter."

Howard is also aware of the top-notch competition she'll face this weekend, but won't let it effect her performance. "I think this is going to be the hardest meet that I've ever been in, but I'm going to go out there and compete like I know I can," said Howard, who topped her previous indoor best this season. "I'm going to have the opportunity to go against schools from the West Coast and Midwest that have been performing very well, and I haven't gone against them yet."

But Drosky doesn't see this talented field as a problem for his star high jumper.

"Chaunte is a very intense competitor," Drosky said. "She wants to win badly. She has been extremely consistent this whole season. She's young but she's very confident. It's not an issue for her being in a competition against juniors and seniors and All-Americans. Chaunte is just very confident in her abilities."

With talent, great coaching and a competitive spirit, you've got the makings of what it takes to excel on a high level in track and field, but throw in the maturity that both of these young women possess and it becomes evident as to why they have experienced such success so soon.

Graff, who hopes to become an astronaut, complains of having too much free time at Tech. After combining track, gymnastics and Advanced Placement-level classes in high school, she added diving to her plate after dropping gymnastics as a senior. Twenty-two hours off per week was just too much down time. She hopes to give collegiate diving a try in the future. It takes a great deal of maturity to juggle that type of schedule.

Howard, on the other hand, has had to deal with going to school on the across the country from home. Everything else has been an easy transition. "The major challenge has just been getting used to being away from home," said Howard, who is on the phone with her family on a daily basis. "Other than that, everything has been going very smoothly. I get along with my coach and I like my teammates so it makes things a lot easier."

Drosky sees big things in store for both Graff and Howard this weekend. "We always said - and it mostly holds true - that if you go to the nationals and do what you did to get there, then you'll be an All-American," said Drosky. "We'd love to come home with two All-Americans and two scorers. One of our goals is to be a top-25 team at the national-level."

"It's reasonable to think that Chaunte is going to go there and be very competitive and hopefully have a shot to win the national meet, and I'd love to see Jessie vault what she did to get here and I think she can go even higher."

While Graff has set specific goals - she hopes to clear between 13'8.00" and 14'0.00" - Howard just hopes to perform to the best of her abilities. She thinks the rest will take care of itself.

Howard and Graff have different goals for different events. But one common thread binds these two: outstanding rookie seasons with more success sure to come.