After a year hiatus, Natalie O’Keefe returned to the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships.
This time, the Southwest Baptist junior and Granite City graduate came out on top.
O’Keefe became the first female in Southwest Baptist history to win a national title after placing first in the high jump in a season-best 1.75 meters at the NCAA Division II indoor national meet on March 11 at Pittsburg State University. O’Keefe is one of nine Southwest Baptist athletes to win a national championship in track and field.
“It was really great,” O’Keefe said. “My coaches are awesome and my family actually got to be at the meet. That was really neat to have them there to share that experience with them.”
O’Keefe is in her third season with the Southwest Baptist track program and so far, she has three All-American awards. She earned her first All-American honors in her freshman year, when she placed fifth in the high jump at the indoor national meet in Winston-Salem, N.C. Last year, O’Keefe earned her second All-American award after placing fifth in the high jump at the outdoor national meet in Allendale, Mich.
O’Keefe also holds the school record mark in the indoor high jump in 5 feet, 9.25 inches.
Last year, O’Keefe came within an inch of qualifying for indoor nationals. She jumped a 5-7 in her sixth-place finish at the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship meet at the University of Central Missouri.
This year, O’Keefe was one of three Southwest Baptist athletes who competed in indoor nationals. Another national qualifier, Mary Bergman, went on to finish sixth in the 400 for her first All-American honor.
O’Keefe came into the national meet with the third-highest jump in the nation at 1.74 meters.
“I tried not to think too much about how I was going to place going in,” O’Keefe said. “I just wanted to go in and jump the best I could that day and hopefully PR (personal record).”
O’Keefe credits assistant coach Marshall O’Brien for her performance.
“He was a graduate assistant when I was a freshman,” O’Keefe said. “In my sophomore year, he had to take a full-time job at a different school, so I kind of missed him then. Then, he came back this year and he’s our track coach now. So it’s really neat because I missed him a lot last year and he got to hand out the awards on the podium (at the national meet), so it meant a lot. He’s a great guy and a lot of fun to work with.”
O’Keefe competed in four indoor meets at Pittsburg State this season. On Feb. 27, O’Keefe won her first conference championship after placing first in the high jump at the MIAA championship meet at the Kansas school.
O’Keefe is off to a flying start in the outdoor season. She finished second in the high jump at the Washington University Invitational April 2 and placed first in the event at the Southwest Baptist Invitational on Saturday.
“We’re kind of getting into the swing of things here,” O’Keefe said. “We just had a month off after nationals to start getting ready for outdoor.”
O’Keefe said she was thrilled to return to the St. Louis area when she competed at the Washington University meet.
“It was fun,” said O’Keefe, who graduated from Granite City in 2013. “I saw a lot of people I competed against in high school. My old cross country coach, Richard Skirball, was officiating at the meet, so I got to see him. Zach and Tyler Manion (GCHS graduates in 2015) were there running for McKendree and we went to high school together, so that was cool, too.”
At the SBU Invitational on Saturday, O’Keefe finished with a national provisional qualifying jump of 1.73 meters, which tied for the second-highest jump in school history.
On Saturday, O’Keefe will return to Pittsburg State when she and her squad compete in the PSU Gorilla Classic.
O’Keefe said her goal for the outdoor season is to continue improving on her jumps.
“I’m trying to get a better mark,” she said. “I’m not really focusing so much on winning again, but trying to focus on jumping higher. That way, I’m not putting unneeded pressure on myself. Just go out and compete.”
O’Keefe also played in her third season with the SBU women’s basketball team this winter. The 6-foot-3 O’Keefe played 25 games off the bench and averaged three points per contest.
Also last month, O’Keefe competed in the Miss Southwest Baptist Pageant but lost to Kinsey Shelton of Highland.
“I love it here at Southwest Baptist University,” O’Keefe said. “I really enjoy going to school here. The people are great. I’m really thankful to have these opportunities.”
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