Hogs Preparing for SEC Meet

Pole vaulter Andrew Irwin is close to having a full complement of equipment. Hurdler Caleb Cross may run four events and sprinter Marek Nitt is rounding into form.

The Arkansas men's track team is setting its sights on a second straight SEC Triple Crown as the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships head to Columbia, Mo., for the first time in a little over one week.

There is a lot of good news with the men's program after the Razorbacks won their 41st NCAA title in March in the indoor championships. They were huge winners in the indoor SEC meet, but assistant coach Doug Case knows that both Texas A&M and Florida will be formidable challengers in Columbia.

Case said Texas A&M will be tougher outdoors than indoors because of some of the events where they are strong that are not contested indoors. Fortunately, the Hogs are also good in some of those events like the javelin, steeplechase, etc.

One of the issues the UA coaches are battling right now is how to trim their team to the outdoor team maximum. It's 27 indoors. Outdoors, they can take 30.

"At the indoor meet, we had around five to eight scorers sitting in the stands because of the limit," Case said. "It's a little better outdoors. But we still might have 40 that could score in the meet, so we have to look at it carefully."

Case said assistants will join head coach Chris Bucknam in scoring the meet over 30 times before they will pick the roster.

Sprinter Marek Niit is rounding into form after battling injuries this year. He was not full speed in the indoor season because of a knee injury. He had a long summer after running for his native Estonia in the Olympics.

Case thinks Niit might do something special in the next few weeks. Niit is a specialist at 200 meters and could bolster an already potent team that is going after its second straight SEC Triple Crown next week at Columbia, Mo., where the outdoors conference meet will be held.

Case also praised Caleb Cross, a hurdler/sprinter finishing up his senior season. Cross has blossomed as a 400-meter runner of late and has become a potent 400-meter hurdler. Cross ran a superb leg when the Hogs set the collegiate record in the 4x400 relay indoors. He could also run the other hurdle race and another relay.

Cross, who hails from Newport, was not highly recruited. Case said he could tell his raw nature while watching him run in the state high school meet in Fayetteville.

"You just can see that he had the ability and character," he said. "I knew he hadn't lifted much weights and they didn't even have a full set of hurdles for him to practice. I found out later they had just one hurdle there."

Champion pole vaulter Andrew Irwin equipment didn't make it to Oregon for a dual meet two weeks ago. Those poles still aren't back, as of Wednesday afternoon. The good thing, only half of them were sent to Eugene. This time of year, they never send all equipment, according to Case. Plus, they thought it was going to be a short runway, so they didn't send his long stuff.

In the meantime, the insurance company with the shipper (who specializes in pole vault poles), has replaced the ones that have been lost. Eventually, Andrew might have extra poles. Case said the company that manufactures the poles had extras on hand. Often time they take some time to make them when an order comes in. So Andrew is back in business as the critical outdoor meets approach.

"Shipping the equipment for the pole vault is not something we like to do," Case said. "For most meets, we just load up a bus with all of our gear and send it early so it's waiting on us. But that was not practical for the Oregon meet this time. It's two days out and two days back.

"The shipper that we used specializes in pole vault equipment. We had never had a problem previously, but it still makes you nervous so we didn't ship but half of his poles.

"It's been two weeks and they still aren't back. We think we know where they are and expect them back in the next day or so. We have replaced most of them. It was good that the manufacturer had what we wanted built. Sometimes they don't have any stock on hand and it takes a bit. The shipper has paid for the new poles."

The NCAA prelims (also known as regionals) follow the SEC meet. The top 48 qualifiers. That will be cut down to the top 12 for the NCAA finals.

"It's a strange meet with the regionals," Case said. "After you get to the top 12, the meet stops. So when the pole vault is down to 12, it's over."

That creates a bizarre mindset that isn't best for competition.

"You go in thinking that you don't have to win to move on and that changes your approach," he said. "Last year we had our pole vault champion not qualify. That's 10 points you were counting on. So we are telling our athletes that you need to go in with the idea of winning the prelim."

The Hogs have done everything with an idea of winning. Bucknam wants to score every meet to declare team winners. They are fresh off a victory in a dual at Eugene with Oregon, the first time the Ducks had been beaten on their home track, Hayward Field, since 2000.

The meet came down to the 4x400 relay. Relays were scored five points for the winner, nothing for second. Arkansas entered with a lead of four.

A packed crowd of 8,000 was ready to cheer an Oregon victory, probably thinking it would be easy with ace quarter miler Mike Berry, a member of the U.S. Olympic relay pool, anchoring.

Arkansas anchored with sprinter Akheem Gauntlett, not a true 400 runner, but with a great kick. Berry sat on Gauntlett's shoulder but never pushed him until the last 100.

"It was a tactical mistake," Case said. "Akheem had plenty left at the end. You aren't going to outkick him at that point. Had Berry pressed him at the start, maybe it would have been different. But they just jogged -- well you know it was faster than a jog -- that first 300. Mike is not a 200 man and that's what he let it turn into, a 200. He's not going to beat Akheem in a 200.

"The crowd was roaring because they thought Mike had him. But when Akheem kicked it didn't happen. You've never seen 8,000 people leave as fast as they did.

"It's kinda neat to call the Hogs at Hayward Field. I'll just say that that didn't go over real well."

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