It began with a little fantasy on both sides.
Iesha Lockhart was a standout track athlete at C.V. Bethel Senior High in Nassau, Bahamas and had drawn interest from colleges like Grambling State and St. Augustine University when she met Central State coach James Rollins at the Penn Relays.
“He told me about the track program and the university and I felt a connection,” she said. “I felt that’s where I wanted to be.
Back in Nassau a few weeks later she accepted Rollins’ offer without ever having visited the campus. Scheduled to start classes in mid-year, she and her mom flew to Orlando where she met up with an aunt and the trio drove to Ohio.
“We stayed overnight in Kentucky,” Iesha recalled. “At 6 the next morning, as we got ready for our final drive to Central State, it started snowing. That was the first time I’d ever seen snow and it was freakin’ me right out. I was screaming, ‘Oh my God, Mommy! It’s snowing!’
“For me, I’d always thought that design of snowflakes was just made up., Something from the imagination. But then I saw that’s actually how they are and I was like, ‘Oh my God! God is really so amazing’.
“It felt magical. That’s the feeling I had heading up to Central State. It was magical.”
The following school year Krystal Mitchell arrived on the CSU campus from her Queens College high school in Nassau and soon her lilting accent and outgoing personality caught people’s attention and truly did spur imaginations.
“Everyone here wasn’t aware of the Bahamas and they asked a lot of questions,” she said with a growing smile. “Some were pretty funny.
“One student asked, ‘So, if you step out of your house, are you in sand right away? Is it the beach everywhere?’
“Somebody else asked if we wore grass skirts. And once someone asked if we rode dolphins to get from place to place.”
Her answers were “No…No”…and “Oh (heck) no!”
Who needs dolphin power when you have legs like hers or Iesha’s?
The pair are leading the resurgent Central State women’s track team into the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference track and field championships Friday through Sunday at Albany State University in Georgia.
Last weekend at the Miami Duals in Oxford – a field that included D-I athletes from several schools — Krystal won the 100-meter dash (12.43 seconds) and was third in the 200 meters (25.97). Iesha was third in in the 400 meter hurdles (1:04.51.)
The CSU men’s team — led by Dayton Dunbar product Juan Scott, who is the reigning NCAA Division II outdoor 110-meter hurdles champ and the 60-meter indoor champ — features two Bahamians, as well.
Sophomore Baron Wilson and freshman Isreal Williamson are part of the Marauders’ 4 x 400 relay team that is ranked No. 2 in the SIAC and was ranked 12th in the nation.
In all, CSU’s four Bahamians are ranked among the SIAC’s top 10 performers in nine events going into this weekend’s championships.
When Iesha came to CSU 2 ½ years ago, there were just a couple of Bahamians on campus and only one – Desiree Sands – on the track team.
“She really took me under her wing,” Iesha remembered. “She treated me like I was her daughter.”
Today, there are over 40 Bahamians on campus, said Nick Novy, CSU’s sports information director.
The school’s embrace of the Caribbean nation began in the fall of 2014 when Central State took part in the first Bahamas HBCUX Classic, a gala football game and celebration in Nassau that pitted the Marauders against Texas Southern.
After that a partnership was forged between the school and the Bahamian Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. In hopes of encouraging areas of study that are in demand but not specifically taught in the country, the Bahamas and CSU formed a four-year deal providing at least 10 scholarships a year that are primarily funded by the nation’s finance ministry.
Novy said former CSU basketball star Sterling Quant – part of the 1968 NAIA national championship team and now an attorney in his native Bahamas – took part in those meetings.
Rollins likes the student athletes he has gotten from the Bahamas:
“They are a lot more mannerable. They appreciate their opportunity and don’t take anything for granted.”
Iesha, a junior studying accounting, is a perfect example. She has a perfect 4.0 grade point average and, on the track, Rollins said, she’s dropped four seconds off her hurdles time each year.
She’s already won first team all conference honors her first two years at CSU and, Rollins said if she continues to improve that way this year, she’ll be close to qualifying for nationals, as will Krystal.
Iesha said she succeeds because of lessons she learned from her mother who raised her on her own until (Iesha) was 9:
“You look at life and you have a whole lot of obstacles. If you fall down, you’ve got to get back up and keep moving. That’s the same in my race. You keep getting up and finishing what you started.”
Finlayson lays foundation
The first Bahamian track standout at CSU was Chrystal Finlayson, who was from Freeport and in the mid-1990s was recruited by University of Miami, Florida Stare, Michigan and Seton Hall among others.
That’s when CSU track coach Josh Culbreath – whose son Jahan, now the school’s athletics director, was his assistant – caught her attention.
“He called and said, ‘Have you ever heard of The Cosby Show?’ she laughed. “ I said ‘Well, yeah.’
“And he goes, ‘Well, have you ever heard of Tailwind Turner?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, wasn’t that the character on the show that ran at the Penn Relays?’
“And he said, ‘Yeah! That’s me!’”
In the mid-1980s a couple of the episodes of The Cosby Show featured Cliff Huxtable (Cosby) competing against his old college rival, Col. Sanford B “Tailwind” Turner.
“Coach Culbreath was just so endearing,” Finlayson said. “His approach was so different and I was sold.”
She had two solid seasons at CSU, but then the school dropped its heralded track program for a few years – which had won 10 NAIA national titles – because of financial problems.
Finlayson transferred to Bethune Cookman, qualified for the 1996 Bahamian Olympic team (until felled by chicken pox) and eventually returned to the Bahamas.
She married, had four children and coached six years of high school track before accepting an assistant coaching job at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. She became interim head coach for two years, but when the job went to someone else, she was sought out by CSU and became the assistant game day operations and facilities manager.
“It’s like I’ve come full circle,” she said as she sat in her office the other day. She has become a mentor of sorts for some of the Bahamian students and even has had some of them join her family in her Huber Heights home for Thanksgiving.
Team is like family
Rollins, an All American hurdler at CSU who is now in the school’s Hall of Fame, said he’s changed his recruiting in recent years:
“I changed my philosophy. I don’t necessarily go after the best of the best because the big schools always come in and swoop them up. Now I look for kids who have potential, are really good kids and have decent grades. I can work with that.“
Many of the Bahamian athletes fit that model.
“I like the close environment here on campus, especially with the track team which is my family away from my family,” Iesha said.
Krystal, who has a 3.5 GPA this term, feels a connection to CSU and talked about it as she sat in the school’s trophy-laden Hall of Fame room the other day.
“One day I hope you find a plaque in here with my name on it,” she said quietly.
She and Iesha have become good friends though she stressed they have different personalities: “She’s very quiet. I’m more outspoken and voice my opinions.”
They differ when it comes to the cold and snow. Iesha said she “loves” it. Krystal “hates” it.
They both miss the food of home. For Iesha, that includes chicken souse. For Krystal, it’s things like “crabs and rice, dumplin’ soup, fried fish and plantains.”
So is there anything you can find at CSU that you can’t find back home?
Krystal thought about her school in rural Greene County and finally smiled:
“The only thing we don’t have back home are squirrels and skunks. I’ve seen squirrels here, but I haven’t actually seen a skunk on campus yet.”
Then again, it’s better that way.
Why risk putting a stink on the magic?