"If an athlete is the kind of person we hope they are, there's no such thing as a rinky-dink meet," said Arkansas field events coach Dick Booth. "If you step out there, you're who you are and you have people watching you. You've got expectations both for yourself and from your coaches and teammates.
"I just don't think there's such a thing as an unimportant meet."
The field at the season-opening Arkansas Invitational today in Fayetteville at the Randal Tyson Track Center won't resemble the competition at the Tyson Invitational, Southeastern Conference or NCAA Championships to be held later this season.
But it will be a valuable meet for Arkansas to start the season on the right foot.
Ole Miss, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, the new home of former LSU coach Pat Henry, will round out the team field.
Leo Bookman, a former Kansas Jayhawk who won consecutive NCAA 200 meter titles in Fayetteville in 2003-04, will be running the 60 meters for Nike today.
Sophomore Wallace Spearmon, Jr., who won the NCAA outdoor 200 meters title to cap an amazing freshman season, will run the 400 at 6 p.m. in the first final running event of the day.
The Razorbacks were named the No. 1 team in the land on Tuesday by Trackwire with 67 points to 34 for co-No. 2s Michigan and Florida, but Arkansas knows what it's like to be a heavy favorite and lose.
Arkansas did that twice last season at the SEC Indoor in Lexington, Ky., and again two weeks later in the Tyson Center at the NCAA Championships when a series of gaffes across a range of events by the Razorbacks sent them down to disappointing runner-up finishes.
The Razorbacks bounced back for a dominating outdoor season, running away with titles at the SEC Outdoor Championships and posting one of the best Arkansas team performances in coach John McDonnell's 33 years to win his second straight outdoor title and 39th overall in Austin, Texas.
Arkansas loses seven-time NCAA champion Alistair Cragg and two-time champ Chris Mulvaney but returns national champions in Spearmon and Tyson Gay, who won the NCAA 100 meters in a school-record time of 10.06 at Texas.
The Arkansas media guide requires a double take after the familiar faces of Cragg, Mulvaney and Daniel Lincoln have graced the covers for the last few season.
Now two sprinters command top billing at Arkansas, a first in McDonnell's career.
"It will be centered around them," McDonnell said of his team. "Those are the type of guys that can get that electricity going with their attitude."
The performances by Gay and Spearmon have not only been exciting for the fans, but they have also inspired other Razorbacks to better performances.
Lincoln and Cragg had the same influence, McDonnell said.
"Not only are they going to get their points," he said, "but other guys are going to say, 'I can get a few.'"
Spearmon and seniors Gay, Omar Brown and Terry Gatson will run the 4x400-meter relay for the first time together in the night's final event at 9.
McDonnell restocked his distance group with Josphat Boit (third at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in November), Marc Rodrigues, Shawn Forrest and Jose Campos to compliment senior seven-time All-American Jason Sandfort (10th at NCAA cross).
Sandfort, Rodrigues, and Forrest will lead the contingent in the 3,000 meters at 8:35 p.m.
Senior James Hatch, a 2004 All-American in the 800, will run that event at 6:40 and should be able to beat the NCAA provisional time of 1:49.5.
The triple jump will be at 7 and Booth is ready to field a serious NCAA scoring unit for the first time in four years.
Senior Jaanus Uudmae, who was born a few months after his father Jaak won the 1980 Olympic gold medal in the triple jump for the former USSR.
Uudmae, an All-American last year indoors, has struggled with injuries for the last two seasons and with most of the top jumpers gone, Booth is expecting big things from Uudmae.
"My expectations are really high," Booth said. "This is the healthiest he's ever been. He's had knee surgeries and all kinds of stuff over the past couple years, but he's a great guy and a good competitor and I think he's excited about getting started right."
Uudmae will be joined in the triple jump by Chessly Johnson, a freshman from Plano, Texas, who won two Texas 4A state titles and owns the state record at 51 feet, 1 inch, which would have been good enough for ninth place at last season's NCAA outdoor meet.
"He could be special," Booth said. "Now, we have to wait and see. He's a competitive guy. He won't mess around. He'll go out there with the idea of taking care of business."
That's just what the coaches want to see.
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