By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Erica Bougard had trouble letting go of her first love – basketball – but track and field eventually stole her heart.
She excelled on the hardwood at Byhalia High School, averaging 13.9 points per game as a senior. But her best scholarship offers came in track and field, and so Bougard went to Mississippi State.
Now a sophomore, she’s become one of the top athletes in the SEC, particularly in the heptathlon. It’s a seven-event competition in which Bougard can utilize many of her natural strengths.
She’ll be a favorite to win at the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin today in Columbia, Mo. Bougard will also compete in the triple jump and the 4×400-meter relay.
Bougard didn’t participate in track and field until she was 16 years old. Her cousin, Sharon Cook, recruited her to join the Memphis Mustangs, an AAU squad. Cook founded the club.
Bougard went on to set an AAU national record in the heptathlon with a score of 5,270.
“I was doing well, I was winning medals, first-place medals. And I loved the feeling of winning, so I just kept going,” Bougard said.
One coach who noticed her was MSU’s Steve Dudley. Bougard was raw, but she has honed her mechanics and keeps improving in the events making up the heptathlon.
“From last year to this year, it’s daylight and dark,” Dudley said. “One event that she has totally, totally transformed herself in is the high jump. She’s been a lot better in the high jump, which has been the difference.”
Bougard set a personal record with a 6-foot high jump at the Texas Relays in late March, aiding her victory in the heptathlon. That qualified her for the NCAA championships.
Less than three weeks prior to the Texas win, she had captured the NCAA national pentathlon championship.
“She’s ranked third in our conference right now, but I feel like she’s kind of a gamer. She likes the big stage,” Dudley said.
Something else has helped Bougard this year – a total devotion to track and field. She said she considered walking on to the MSU women’s basketball team as a freshman, but she’s come to realize how much track means to her.
“I think the light bulb came on and (she) said, you know, I could be pretty good at this,” Dudley said. “And once her heart and mind switched to totally focusing on track and field and not worrying about the other any more, that’s what transformed her. That’s impressive to be able to do that.
“Some people can’t do that. I’ve got some fifth-year seniors that are still living back there in their high school days.”
High school was fun, but Bougard is having fun in college, too, and great things could be in store. Dudley called her an “international caliber athlete” with a bright future beyond college.
Basketball would not have offered that for Bougard. She said her best initial scholarship offer out of high school was to Northwest Mississippi Community College, and by the time other offers came along, she’d already committed to Mississippi State.
“If I would’ve gotten a better basketball scholarship, I probably would’ve picked it over track,” she said. “But I’m actually glad I didn’t.”