ON THIS DAY: Neely Spence Makes NCAA Division II History

A non-NCAA Division I athlete must have done something truly remarkable in the preceding months to be invited to compete in the elite section of a distance event at one of the prestigious early spring meets like the Mt. SAC Relays or the Stanford Invitational. Double that when it comes in a year with the Olympics or IAAF World Championships, like it did back in 2011.

So when Neely Spence of NCAA Division II Shippensburg toed the starting line alongside the likes of then-American record holder Molly Huddle, 2009 The Bowerman winner and soon-to-be world champion Jenny Simpson and a number of other talented professionals on April 14, 2011, track & field fans inside Hilmer Lodge Stadium probably scrambled to scour the program to find out what she had done.

All-Time Top-10 Performers – NCAA DII Women’s Outdoor 5000 Meters

Name
Program
Mark
Year
Neely Spence
Shippensburg
15:33.83
2011
Mandi Zemba
Grand Valley State
15:38.54
2007
Caroline Kurgat
Alaska Anchorage
15:40.45
2019
Elva Dryer
Western Colorado
15:42.23
1996
Jessica Pixler
Seattle Pacific
15:44.07
2010
Monica Kinney
Grand Valley State
15:46.25
2011
Amy Harper-Avrit
Cal Poly
15:50.4h
1983
Mirsada Buric-Adam
Adams State
15:53.45
1995
Rachel Patterson
Grand Valley State
15:54.35
2012
Nicole Jefferson
Western Colorado
15:54.77
1999

Once they located her name, they’d see that Spence was already a six-time NCAA champion, which included back-to-back crowns in both cross country and the outdoor 5000. Earlier that year, Spence also bettered her own divisional indoor record over 5000 meters to 16:01.09 in a winning effort at the New Balance Collegiate Invitational and became the second non-NCAA DI athlete named to The Bowerman Watch List thanks to her performance.

It’s safe to say that Spence definitely belonged there.

When it came to that 12½ lap race in Walnut, California, exactly nine year ago today, Spence more than held her own. You probably already know what happened, too.

Spence ended up finishing 10th overall in 15:33.83, which shattered the previous NCAA DII record by nearly five seconds (Mandi Zemba, Grand Valley State – 15:38.54). It was also a near 28-second all-conditions PR for the then-junior from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, who dropped it another 12 seconds just a few months earlier in New York.

The historical run continued the following month, as she’d win her third consecutive NCAA outdoor title at 5000 meters – a feat that hadn’t been accomplished before or after.

By the time Spence wrapped up her collegiate career, she had set two divisional records – both of which are still standing – and won a total of eight NCAA titles, including that unprecedented trio in the 5000.