Steven White entered the NCAA national meet last week feeling like he had something to prove.
The same was true for North Texas head coach Carl Sheffield when it came to the future of the program.
The way White came through in the closing stretch of the 400-meter hurdles made both feel like they made their point.
The senior entered the final 100 meters at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., back in the pack before a strong closing kick helped him run down several competitors and finish third in a school-record time of 49.32
White’s finish was UNT’s best at the national meet since 1970, when Bill Schmidt finished second in the men’s javelin.
The performance is one UNT is hoping vaults its program forward as it makes the transition from the Sun Belt to Conference USA. The switch becomes official this summer.
“It will definitely motivate people,” White said of his performance. “We will start with conference, but after that we are going to strive to get more people to regionals and nationals.”
White returned to Denton this week, carrying tangible proof that he is among the elite collegiate track athletes in the country in the form of a small trophy. The memories of being on the medal stand with that trophy will last a lifetime.
“It was pretty exciting to be in the top three in the whole NCAA,” White said. “I went in ranked fourth and was able to push myself to beat one other person.”
That push came at the end of the race, just like White and Sheffield had planned.
“We knew that if he was in the race on hurdles 6 and 7, then he could be Steven White,” Sheffield said. “He always closes so strongly. He ran himself into medal contention.”
White felt comfortable throughout the race, despite a stumble heading into the closing stretch.
“After the fifth hurdle, I was definitely behind, in fifth or sixth place,” White said. “Coming into the turn, I was moving more. After the last hurdle, I was able to push past two or three more guys. That is pretty much how I run all my races.”
Sheffield credited White’s late surge to his will power. He nearly ran down Michael Stigler of Kansas, who finished second in 49.19.
“Very seldom is Steven going to lose a race that he is in at the end,” Sheffield said. “He is going to go right to the line.”
White did just that and erased the memories of missing the final in the 400 hurdles at the end of his junior year, when he finished 14th.
The question now for White is whether his milestone performance at the national meet will be one of his final races. Sheffield said that White has a chance to run professionally and has set up meetings with a series of agents who will talk to White about his opportunities.
The Killeen native has yet to decide if he will turn pro. For now he is just concentrating on finishing his college education, a goal he expects to reach this fall, and the U.S. national championships that begin next week in Des Moines, Iowa.
White could stay at UNT and train at the school or go elsewhere to continue training with another coach.
While White has yet to decide what his future holds, Sheffield says he has established a significant legacy at UNT.
White will go down as one of the more successful track athletes in UNT history, not to mention one who helped elevate the status of the program.
“Kids want to go to a place where they can become a national-caliber athlete,” Sheffield said. “To have someone finish third at nationals helps me as a coach and helps the program in recruiting. Kids think they have to go to a Texas A&M or an LSU to be good. They can see how fast Steven ran and know they can do the same thing here.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.