Difference Maker

Difference Maker

Note: The following appears in the June issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.

By Philip Sikes // Athletic Communications

What a difference a year makes.

This time last season, Clemson women’s track & field did not score a single point at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. The Tigers, winner of four consecutive ACC Indoor and Outdoor Championships with top-25 NCAA finishes each season, were shut out.

Welcome to the fold, Natoya Goule.

“She transferred as an NCAA Champion, so she already had the accolades as it related to Division I,” said Mark Elliott, who recently completed his second season as head coach of the men’s and women’s programs at Clemson. “That was a big boost for the program.”

Yep, it sure was.

Small in stature? You bet. But, put her on a track and she’s gargantuan.

The native Jamaican has shown just how much she’s meant to the revival of Clemson women’s track & field in 2015. Consider the following results.

In 2014, the Tiger women scored a combined 88 points at the ACC Indoor and Outdoor Championships while Goule sat as a redshirt transfer. At the 2015 ACC Indoor Championships alone, the Tigers compiled 102 points. What resulted was the program’s fifth indoor title since 2010 … and a seven-spot jump from its 2014 finish.

“We talked about winning it before we even won,” Goule said. “We worked hard for that indoor title. It means a lot to me and my teammates.”

Goule has meant a lot to Clemson track & field. With two NCAA Championships already in her portfolio from the 2013 season at LSU — Elliott’s former school — much was expected. Safe to say, those expectations have been met and in most cases, exceeded.

After she saw the 2015 ACC Indoor title slip from her grasp in her specialty event, the 800 meters, Goule didn’t fret. She saw it as a wake-up call.

“When I was beat at ACCs, I told myself that wasn’t happening at nationals,” she said. “And I went out and proved that I can still do what I’ve always done.”

Not only did Goule win a third NCAA Championship in the 800, but she also did it with a different approach — by bludgeoning the competition from the outset of the race. Goule blistered the University of Arkansas’ Randal Tyson Track to an NCAA Indoor Championships record 2:01.64. She also anchored the 4×400 relay to a fourth-place finish, helping the Tigers to a 12th-place tie as a team.

The outdoor season wasn’t much different, only this time around Goule won the 800 meters. In many ways, it was even more impressive because she did it May 16 in Tallahassee, Fla., just 40 minutes after running the final of the 400 meters — a rare double at any level of track & field.

“I was worried all night before the finals, but Coach had confidence in me,” Goule said. “I felt kind of sluggish after the prelims. But after running 52.6 in the 400, I didn’t feel sore like the day before. I was ready to run the 800, and I surprised myself.”

She didn’t surprise anyone by setting an ACC Outdoor Championships record, despite the small amount of recovery time after the 400. Goule posted a time of 2:01.32, besting her own Clemson record.

Clemson again earned a sweep of the ACC Championships, this time winning the outdoor crown on Florida State’s track.

“That was the best,” she said. “They won indoors on our track in 2014, so we returned the favor.”

With Goule’s addition and an impressive recruiting class, there was little doubt Clemson would move up the ACC pecking order in 2015.

But that much success, this soon?

“I knew it would happen this fast,” Goule said. “Seeing how Coach Elliott recruited and knowing who was coming in, I knew we would be very successful.”

Take it from Goule, a living testament of Elliott’s ability to recruit. After plucking the talented athlete out of his home country of Jamaica, Elliott steered her to South Plains Junior College, where the plan was to join his middle distance group at LSU after two seasons. She did just that.

When Elliott made the decision to pursue Clemson’s head coaching vacancy in 2013, Goule again got a taste of his persuasive skills. She picked up and left Baton Rouge, relocating to Clemson that summer.

“I knew he’d have a successful program at Clemson, because he’s very smart in what he’s doing,” Goule said. “I saw who he recruited to LSU. He was a big part of their championships. But he’s not selfish. He’s a distance coach by nature, but he doesn’t put all his scholarship money into that area. He recruits all over.”

That much is obvious, based on the program’s bounce-back season in 2015. While Elliott recruited some of the top talent to LSU in the past, he said he’s never seen an athlete quite like Goule.

“In a total package, she’s got the best range I’ve ever coached,” he said. “She could also run the 200 meters. But, she also runs cross country. I was fortunate to be around and recruit a lot of great athletes at LSU, but Goule is the best I’ve coached so far. She knows how to win, and when you have someone like that in your program, it’s easier to be successful.”

No arguing that. Perhaps more important than the one season Goule gets to compete for the Tigers is the impact she’s had on the program’s recruiting efforts.

Clemson signed two of the country’s top 800-meter runners from the class of 2015, Iowa’s Kaley Ciluffo and Michigan’s Ersula Farrow. Coincidence? Think again.

“In anything you do, notoriety helps in recruiting,” Elliott said. “She and others on our team — Tevin Hester, for example — have kept our program in the national spotlight. Our signing class does show that Natoya has had a major impact on people in her event area.”

And it’s these types of recruits that has Goule thinking big picture, down the road with the Clemson women’s program.

“They’ve seen what Coach Elliott has done with me,” she said. “They know I followed him here. He’s the reason I’m running the way I’m running. They want to come here, and get fast. Just like I wanted to follow him here so I could improve my time, they see that and want to come to Clemson.”

It’s not just the 800 meters that’s thriving. Clemson has several young standouts that have shown a great deal of promise in 2015. Plus, more are own the way, and spread across several different events.

With a potentially loaded roster, Goule already has her eye on 2016 and what it may hold.

“The team that’s coming back will be great,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we won an NCAA Championship. A few years from now, we’re going to be hard to deal with. I’ll be there, encouraging the youngsters to do their very best.”

Goule earned her undergraduate degree in communication studies in May, and plans to serve the program as a volunteer assistant while continuing to train as a professional under Elliott’s tutelage.

Being a central part of the program’s foundation moving forward isn’t lost on Goule. She understands how special it is to be at a place like Clemson.

“Not many people have this opportunity,” she said. “Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been one of the favorites. That motivated me even more to train hard. And getting my degree at Clemson is something I’ll never forget, a proud moment for myself and my family. I pushed through, and it was never easy.”

What a difference a year makes? How about the difference Natoya Goule has made?

Editor’s Note: Goule broke her own outdoor Clemson record and won a third straight Jamaican National Championship in the 800 meters in June after this article was published, running a personal best 1:59.63 to qualify for the 2015 IAAF World Championships.