Led by freshman Rasheem Brown, No. 1 in the 110-meter hurdles, Milligan’s men made a big jump in the most recent NAIA top-25 poll, moving to No. 22. Milligan’s women remain in the top 50 nationally, led by national qualifying marks from freshman Gabrielle Mardis and senior Liz Maller.
Head coach Chris Layne’s program has always trended in the direction of national prominence and championship success, but even still, he said this year’s teams continue to grow.
“I’m really excited with the momentum we have right now,” Layne said. “We definitely need to continue developing more competitive depth, but we’re seeing a lot of improvement across all of our event areas — which is encouraging. We’re continuing to make a strong push toward having a full-blown program over the next three to four years, and the end goal is to have teams in the top 25 across the board year in and year out.”
Among this growth, Milligan boasts seven national qualifiers already this season and many of the nation’s top marks. In fact, Milligan ranks No. 4 (women) and No. 5 (men) in the South and have top-four crews over 5,000 meters (women) and 10,000 meters (men).
Brown, with a Milligan record-setting time of 14.01, claimed the NAIA’s top time in the 110 hurdles last weekend at Lenoir-Rhyne. He was one of three Buffs on the men’s side to notch a national qualifying mark, as Tim Thacker ran the fifth-fastest 1500-meter run at 3:53.12 and Nathan Baker ran the seventh-fastest 5k time at 14:51.25.
With the AAC championships (April 26-27) and NAIA championships (May 23-25) coming up, the Buffs have plenty of championship experience. Brown (2019 indoor 60-meter hurdles) and Baker (2018 indoor 3,000 meters) both are national champions, while Thacker was the national runner-up in the mile this indoor season.
“It’s great to have Baker back in the mix, so he’ll certainly add a great deal of quality to what Tim and Rasheem are doing on the men’s side,” Layne said. “Then you have guys like Jarad Turpen, Cameron Higgins, Tons Ferguson and Brent Coleman who are taking steps this year, and they’re all capable of scoring multiple points for us at the conference level.”
Rounding out Layne’s national qualifiers on the men’s side is Cory Aulich, who qualified in the marathon last week at the Strawberry Plains Half Marathon.
Mardis and Maller have been the top performers for Milligan this season on the women’s side. Mardis, an indoor All-American in the 3,000, has qualified in the 3,000-meter steeplechase despite running the race only twice. Maller, an indoor All-American in the weight throw, has qualified in both the hammer throw and shot put.
“Liz has been a leader all season, and she continues to progress outdoors,” Layne said. “Gabrielle Mardis is really doing a nice job in the steeple and collectively we’ve got a strong middle distance/distance group evolving, but we still have work to do to get a few more folks across the finish line qualifier-wise.”
ROUNDING UP THE BUFFS
Four other Milligan sports are closing in on the championship portion of their season. The golf teams have completed their spring conference championships and have already turned their focus toward the NAIA AAC Direct Qualifier, an automatic qualifying tournament for the NAIA Women’s/Men’s Golf National Championships.
The women made up five strokes during the second round in a runner-up finish at the AAC Spring Championship. Senior Sarah Son shared the individual lead through 36 holes before winning a playoff to earn medalist honors outright. The Buffs finished in the top four in six of seven events this year and currently receive votes in the NAIA national top-25 poll.
On the men’s side, senior Cody Carlson placed 18th to lead the Buffaloes at the AAC Spring Championship as the Buffs settled for a ninth-place finish as a team. Runners-up at the AAC Fall Championship, Milligan’s men peaked late in the fall and early in the spring, having finished in the top five in four of five events spanning Christmas break.
The NAIA AAC Direct Qualifier tournaments are scheduled for April 15-16 (women) and April 22-23 (men).
Sandwiched between them is the AAC tennis postseason tournament April 18-20. Milligan’s women are currently fifth in conference standing while the men are seventh, both with one match left.
The women posted solid results this season, winning four of the first five and eight of the first 11 matches. They are coming off a 5-4 win over AAC member Point University on senior day, where freshman McKenzie Grady provided the clinching point at No. 5 singles. With a record of 9-7, Grady is one of four Buffs with nine or more singles wins this season. Marlaina Peterson has the most with a 15-4 record.
Taylor Graalman, at 12-7, has been the men’s frontrunner this season. Milligan’s men also enjoyed a successful start to the season, winning their first three matches, but they have been on an uphill climb since the conference slate started.
At 1-5 in the AAC, the Buffaloes sit behind five nationally ranked schools in what is now arguably the strongest conference in the NAIA for men’s tennis. The Buffaloes will likely face national No. 2 Reinhardt University or No. 5 Point University in the first round of the conference tournament.
Once tennis season has wrapped up, softball and baseball postseason tournaments will be next on the docket. The softball tournament will be April 24-27 at Brickyard Park in Kingsport. The baseball tournament will be May 1-4 at Hunter Wright Stadium, also in Kingsport.
Milligan softball is currently sixth in the league after making a big jump over the last 10 games. Winners of eight of those 10, the Buffaloes split with each of the top two teams in the league already, both of which are nationally ranked, and close out their conference slate this weekend against Brenau University, which is receiving votes.
Freshman Erin Forgety has been stellar and has put up superb numbers in the second half of the season. She owns an ERA of 2.02 and has three shutouts, all of which have come in her last four outings. Forgety has 99 strikeouts in 100 1/3 innings to go along with 11 complete games and a 9-7 record.
Neelee Griffith and Kirstan Beaver are the hitting leaders for Milligan as they both hit well over .300 at .357 and .342, respectively. Griffith has six doubles, two home runs and 14 RBIs. Beaver has four doubles, two triples and one long ball.
Six Buffaloes bat over .300 on the baseball diamond. Blake Dutton (.394), Snaider Torrealba (.357), Isaac Barkley (.353), Juan Vasquez (.347), Chance Hall (.315) and Chayse Frye (.306) lead the way as the Buffs are 15-19 overall and 6-12 in the AAC. This is good for eighth in the league with three series left, including No. 24 Bryan at home this weekend.
After that, Milligan close out the season with two teams near the bottom of the conference: last-placed St. Andrews at home April 19-20 and seventh-placed Union on the road April 26-27.