State of the Hogs: Starting Big

Arkansas could get off to a big start in the NCAA Indoor meet with sophomore pole vaulter Andrew Irwin. The defending champ will face the world's best right out of the gate Friday night.

testWatching the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships can wear out your neck. Things happen quickly and the timing is amazingly good. Bang, bang, bang. It's quite a show.

There are some events early in the day Friday that don't get watched, like the weight throw at 12:30 p.m. But starting with the women's high jump at 3:15 p.m., it will get good fast at the Randall Tyson Track Center.

For sure, be in your seat by 5:30 p.m. for the start of the pole vault where Arkansas sophomore Andrew Irwin is the number two qualifier after his indoor personal best of 18-4.5 to win the SEC title two weekends ago. He likely will skip the first height, but won't sit out long.

"This is literally 16 of the best vaulters in the world for this meet," said Doug Case, the UA assistant who handles vaulters and sprinters. "Eight have gone over 18 feet."

That's an interesting twist to assistant coach responsibilities. Not many work that combination, but Case thinks it's perfect for what makes Irwin special. He's fast.

"We've never timed him in 100 meters, but from what I know he can do in 60 and some other things we've seen from him, I think he'd run 10.8," Case said. "He's surprisingly fast."

There are a lot of keys in the pole vault, but one of the big ones is speed.

"To be good in the pole vault, you need to have facilities, coaching and equipment," Case said. "It's an expensive event, very technical, too. But speed is the key."

It all fell together for Irwin in tiny Mt. Ida. He followed his older sister Stephanie to Hot Springs to work with former Case associate Morry Sanders. Then, he followed Stephanie to Arkansas.

"Morry and I worked together when Earl Bell was still vaulting at Arkansas State in the 1990s," Case said. "Then, I had a great run with vaulters, several over 18 feet (with an NCAA champ at Northern Iowa)."

Sanders built an indoor training facility at his home in Lake Hamilton. He trained Irwin with the Arkansas Vault Club.

"Morry told me that Andrew was one of the better vaulters he'd coached," Case said. "His sister came here and when we started recruiting Andrew as a senior when he was breaking records, he told us that he'd grown up wanting to be a Razorback."

Irwin won the NCAA indoor title last year with a vault of 18-2.5. He went 18-9.25 outdoor. It will take another big vault for him to get the kind of points the Hogs need in their battle to unseat three-time defending champ Florida this weekend.

"Basically, he needs to get a personal record," Case said. "It might go until 18-9. Everybody is good. It will start at 17.

"Andrew will not come in for the opening height, but he might be out there for the second height. So he'll be out there after about 30 minutes."

Hopefully, the Arkansas crowd is in its seats by then, urging him on. Case said the home crowd knows the sport and picks up vaulters for their big runs.

"I don't think Andrew is one to start the clapping, but he likes it," Case said. "Some will do it. But it does help him. We have a very educated crowd and they know what to do."

Irwin came to college with a lot of skill and technique after much work with Sanders, but Case thought there were things "that could be cleaned up. I thought I could help him with his speed."

And, he did. It's that work as a sprinter's coach that comes in handy with vaulters.

"I don't know that too many coaches do both sprinters and vaulters, but I think it's an advantage," he said. "We've got a diverse group in training, from the 100, 200, 400 and all the way to 800 guys.

"I thought with the speed work, with his technique and skill, we could improve him by getting him fast.

"I call it making a professional run. We got his stride more even."

Irwin has some of the qualities required to be a great vaulter.

"First, you can't have any fear," Case said. "Andrew has no fear. The vaulter is one of those guys on the team that wants adventure. I will say that the vault is a riot to coach. There's the technique and the leverage systems. I enjoy that part."

It could be a riot to watch. At Wednesday's track boosters event at Jose's Restaurant on Dickson Street, head coach Chris Bucknam went through the potential scoring for the meet. He said his assistants, Travis Geopfert and Case, figure the meet points. Both came up with identical totals for the Hogs and Gators.

"It's going to be like a duel, toe-to-toe," Case said. "I think we have two things going for us, we have a larger potential for points and we are peaking at the right time.

"We did our workout yesterday and the guys blew me away. Our timing is good.

"It could come down to the 4x400 relay (to finish the meet at 8:20 p.m. Saturday). We have a great 4x400 team and we will be in it for the win. Everyone I talk to thinks it will come down to that race. If it does, we'll be confident."

The Arkansas advantage is 19 entries versus 11 for Florida.

"Our coaches think it's 61-61 on the form charts," Bucknam said. "But we have some people that Florida just doesn't have. Those form charts don't predict the meet."

The long jump is a big event to start, just like the pole vault. Arkansas and Florida both have great jumpers. It's another 5:30 p.m. start.

As they say, come early Friday and be prepared to stay all the way until the end Saturday night.

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