Palmer and Newkirk pack powerful 1-2 punch for Panthers


Desmond Palmer clears a hurdle at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

With Pitt’s 2016-17 indoor track and field season getting into full swing, two athletes stick out as names to watch: Desmond Palmer and Quadaisha Newkirk.

Palmer, a senior from Pickerington, Ohio, is already established as one of the Panthers’ most accomplished track stars. Newkirk, meanwhile, is a junior college national champion hoping to carry over her success to her first season at Pitt and the Division I level.

After sweeping both the 400m race and the 4x400m relay at the 2016 NJCAA Outdoor National Championships in May as a sophomore at New Mexico Junior College, Newkirk came to Pitt before the fall semester.

“I chose Pitt because this is where I felt the most loved,” Newkirk said. “They were always getting in contact with me all the time and keeping up with my track meets and stuff. I liked that about them.”

She stopped short of predicting a repeat performance at NCAAs this year but still expects to achieve All-American status by reaching both the indoor finals in March and the outdoor finals in May.

“For indoor this year, I plan on being in the finals of the 400. And the same thing for outdoor,” Newkirk said. “And I plan on my 4×400 being in the finals for indoor and outdoor.”

Newkirk has already reached the pinnacle of sprinting at the junior college level. Now, the Philadelphia native wants to do the same at Pitt.

“I’m just ready to get out there and let everyone know who I am,” Newkirk said.

Judging by her performance in her debut meet with the Panthers on Dec. 10, she’s off to a pretty fast start. Newkirk crushed the competition in the 500m race at the Golden Flashes Gala hosted by Kent State, winning by almost two full seconds over the second-place finisher with a time of 1:12.63.

Newkirk taking home first place in her first meet at the Division I level might come as a surprise to some. But Pitt head coach Alonzo Webb, who said he’s never had someone transfer in with a pedigree like Newkirk’s, always expected the junior to make an immediate impact.

“She’s one-of-a-kind. She really is going to be someone that you’re going to hear a lot about this year and beyond,” Webb said. “And I think she has the potential to run post-collegiately, just like Desmond does.”

Already a two-time All-American and three-time NCAA Qualifier, Palmer hopes to make it back to the podium one last time in 2017.

Palmer earned first-team NCAA All-American status as a sophomore with an eighth-place finish in the 400m hurdles at the 2015 NCAA Outdoor National Championships. He then followed that up with another impressive season in 2016, defending his ACC title in the 400mH.

But he failed to qualify for the finals at nationals last year and fell to second-team All-America status, something that motivates him to put together his best season as a senior.

“I think it’s something that had to happen, because I kind of was getting complacent,” Palmer said. “I kind of just thought I automatically should be in the top eight. So I think it’s something that had to happen for me to regain focus for my senior year and come out with a good result.”

Palmer said his goals are simple for making the 2017 season a success.

“I just want to end my senior year on a good note,” Palmer said. “Of course for outdoor, defend my ACC title and get back into the top eight for first-team All-American and compete for an NCAA title.”

Palmer already got a head start on training for his final campaign by competing in the 400mH at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in July. He finished his heat in fourth place with a time of 51.56, failing to advance but still gaining valuable experience from the event.

“Just to find myself on that level was eye-opening, and I learned a lot from it,” Palmer said. “So hopefully I can compete again in 2020.”

As his final season approaches, Webb said Palmer has raised his abilities to yet another level.

“He’s always been a hard worker, I’ve never had to ask him twice to do anything, never had to try to motivate him to work hard. He’s always done that,” Webb said. “But there’s just been something different about him this year, and I think everybody’s noticed it.”

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