No Stopping The Streak

FAYETTEVILLE -- John McDonnell is such a competitor he believes his cross country conference winning streak should stand at 31 instead of 30.

Even while reminiscing over his favorite achievement, McDonnell couldn't help but remember his second Southwest Conference meet in 1973 a year after being hired at Arkansas.

One of McDonnell's runners didn't follow instructions, went out too fast and faded down the stretch as Arkansas came in second by 10 points to hated rival Texas in Austin.

It would be the last time McDonnell would lose a meet in Austin to the Longhorns or anyone else.

McDonnell, who has won three of his 39 NCAA outdoor track and field championships at Texas, will try to extend the winning streak with a life of its own at 10 a.m. today when No. 3 Arkansas hosts the Southeastern Conference Championships at the Razorback Agri-Park Course in Fayetteville.

"We're very excited," said Arkansas junior Luis Bordes. "Any time you can run in front of your fans, there's always excitement.

"To keep the tradition alive, you just feel you belong to something that goes on past the time I was born. We've been winning before I was born. To come back and run it here is a great thing for our fans."

Arkansas will send a group of 10 runners to the line today led by junior transfer Josphat Boit, who has won three straight races and three straight SEC Athlete of the Week honors.

Senior three-time All-American Jason Sandfort, junior transfer Marc Rodrigues, Bordes, junior Matt Gunn, junior Said Ahmed, senior Eric Gross, junior Jose Campos and freshmen Jonathon Norris and Shawn Forrest will round out the team going for No. 31.

"It's a culmination of a lot of guys' hard work," Sandfort said. "It means a lot to us, but it also means a lot to a lot of other people. Each year we set out to win a national championship, but it's always great to continue our streak of conference titles."

Forrest is making his season debut after getting his eligibility certified after coming to Fayetteville from Australia, where he was a three-time under-20 champion runner.

McDonnell no longer has to worry much about runners ignoring his coaching and his athletes compete with a combination of fear of being on the team that ends the streak and a tremendous pride in what the Arkansas jersey has come to represent.

"I felt like in '73 we should have won it," McDonnell said. "When you start off like that, kids don't have the same belief in you as you do later on. That has become a little bit easier. Back then, we were all experimenting. The runners, the coach, everyone.

"But once we won two or three, we got to like it."

McDonnell and his Razorbacks have liked it so much, they've barely cracked the door of opportunity for anyone to knock them off an ever-growing pedestal in the last 30 years.

Only two meets have been decided by as little as four points and the rest have been anywhere from mere double-digit wins to downright blowouts like Arkansas' first year in the SEC in 1991.

The Razorbacks posted a perfect score and routed defending champion Tennessee 15-88 to announce nothing was going to change even though Arkansas had changed conferences.

The conference winning streak was just a "baby streak" when McDonnell's appetite for success eventually led to amazing runs of 12 straight NCAA indoor track titles from 1984-95 and eight straight NCAA outdoor titles from 1992-99.

He's won triple crowns sweeping the cross country, indoor and outdoor track NCAA titles five times.

McDonnell has won so many Coach of the Year honors that some sit scattered around his office still wrapped in their plastic packaging.

Nothing means more to him than his first team title in 1974 or his first NCAA title 10 years later.

"Those are the things that stick in your mind," he said. "You can look at other ones that were maybe more spectacular victories we had to fight harder and work harder for. But nothing equals the first championship."

McDonnell's fortunes in NCAA competition have waxed and waned over the years even as his current outdoor winning streak stands at two, but the constant has remained his cross country dominance.

"It's not bad if you did it three or four years with the same bunch of guys," he said. "Then you have a whole new bunch of guys and that's why I feel that this streak is very dear to me as far as showing the consistency of our program to do it for 30 years.

"It's pretty special."

The Razorbacks have become such a force that most teams in the SEC have simply abandoned trying to knock off Arkansas.

With cross country and track scholarships split between the two seasons, most schools have simply devoted their resources to sprints or field events and conceded the distance side to the Razorbacks.

Four schools won the SEC cross country title from 1980-90, but since Arkansas joined the league only Tennessee and Alabama had consistently earned runner-up honors until Georgia took second last year.

"The other coaches have backed away from putting scholarship money into the distance events because of the fact they feel it may be wasted," said Alabama coach Joe Walker, who is at one of only a couple conference schools still trying to hang with the Hogs. "We'll get a full scholarship guy, but he'll still have trouble running with Arkansas.

"I'm in a situation where our coach is going to allow us to bring some distance guys in and maybe we can get five deep, but it's very difficult."

Walker said the streak serves as better motivation for Arkansas than for the competition.

"It's probably easier from his side," Walker said. "Fear is a huge motivator. They don't want to be the guys who lose that streak."

Last year was the best chance since Tennessee came within four points in 1994 for a team to knock off Arkansas.

The Razorbacks were running with top Hog Alistair Cragg three weeks removed from hernia surgery and with only one workout under his belt.

Without Cragg, Arkansas lost to an SEC team for the first time when Georgia beat the Hogs at the Oklahoma State Jamboree and celebrated like it won the national championship.

Keeping the streak going got Cragg back in action and he took third to help Arkansas avenge that loss to Georgia with a 33-58 win.

"We were sweating," McDonnell said. "There have been years when they had great chances to beat us and last year was one of those years. We have survived it. It really is gratifying to think that last year a lot of freshmen stepped up and did a good job.

"That's the way it's been down the years. Some years we totally dominated and some years we weren't the best team but we still won."

First-year Georgia coach David Hartman had to think for a moment about what the blueprint was for beating Arkansas.

"Hmmm," he said, "What can we do? I think it may take a few years. Hopefully bring in some good recruits, get them working hard and develop them into NCAA caliber runners.

"To beat Arkansas, you're going to have to be on, on that given day. You have to have great athletes and have a great day."

That day just won't be today, Walker said.

"You have to believe it's going to come to an end at some point," Walker said. "I just don't think it will be this year."

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