Hogs In Prime Contention

AUSTIN, Texas -- John McDonnell achieved milestone victories during the indoor track season, but now it's back to pursuing prime numbers.

The 34-year Arkansas coach won his 75th conference championship and his 40th NCAA title last February and March in Fayetteville.

Now he turns his sights to the less-round figures of 76, 41 and 3 counting the NCAA Mideast Regional McDonnell so dislikes even while his team has won it handily in each of its first two seasons.

Arkansas already has three automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in June, but the season really gets in gear beginning today at the 78th Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays in Mike A. Myers Stadium.

The 20,000-seat venue on the University of Texas campus was the sight of McDonnell's 39th NCAA title last year when the Razorbacks won the meet with a new sprint style and just as much flair as some of the greatest teams in Arkansas history.

The comeback win last month managed to top the events March 12 in the Randal Tyson Track Center.

Arkansas lost NCAA champions Alistair Cragg and Chris Mulvaney and their 20 points from last year's team.

The Razorbacks were without another of their champs, 100-meter winner Tyson Gay, because of injury.

That was before its winning distance medley relay team was disqualified on a ruling of impedance at the finish, much to McDonnell's consternation.

Still, Arkansas showed no signs of lacking heroes in winning No. 40.

Sophomore Wallace Spearmon Jr. broke the American 200 meters record twice en route to winning his second NCAA crown to cap an undefeated indoor season and James Hatch, Terry Gatson and Peter Kosgei took successive and unexpected runner-up finishes in the 800, 400 and 3,000 to clinch the team title.

While the indoor season is all about running fast times to get into the NCAA meet and winning the conference as usual, the outdoor season and its host of relay meets like Texas, Mt. SAC in Walnut, Calif., and of course the all-mighty Penn in Philadelphia represent several chances to prove team supremacy.

"Everything is a build up for conference and nationals," McDonnell said. "You have to come away from those meets feeling good about yourself. If you don't, you'll be beat."

Arkansas' domination in Austin isn't just as recent as the 2004 NCAA outdoor title or the football team's 38-28 romp in 2003.

McDonnell went seven years between his first and second NCAA outdoor titles, both won in Austin in 1985 and 1992.

For the last 20 years, the Texas Relays record book is covered with more pork than a plate at the Rendezvous in the long distance relays and this year the Razorbacks will also be contenders in the sprint medley and 4x400.

The Razorbacks will field a 4x400, 4x800, 4x1,500, sprint medley and distance medley relay team. They're the defending champs in the 4x800, 4x1,500 and DMR.

Gay, who ran the fastest 60 meters in the nation in his only race of the season before being sidelined with a hamstring injury sustained in a fall at the finish, is healthy and so is junior Josphat Boit.

Boit was an All-American third at the NCAA cross country meet last November and bounced back from an illness-plagued indoor season to shatter the school record in the 10,000 meters last Friday at Stanford.

Boit finished paired just 1.1 seconds ahead of Kosgei, who transferred to Arkansas in January and picked up where he left off in the indoor season with his surprise second in the 3K.

"To be honest with you, to run that fast was a surprise," McDonnell said. "The competition was there. Both of them to run that fast was exciting."

For the outdoor season, Arkansas also brings back junior Eric Brown, who had his two best throws of the season in Austin last season at the Texas Relays and the NCAAs, where he broke the school record with his third-place heave in the javelin.

Quite simply, the Razorbacks are loaded for bear up and down the roster and across events from the 100 to the 10,000.

Just as the 1993 team's win preceded an even bigger blowout in 1994, so, too, could last season's win in Austin.

The Razorbacks 4x400-meter relay team to compete this weekend says it all about the dramatic transformation in the sprints since Lance Brauman's arrival three years ago.

There's Spearmon, the American record holder who followed up a 20.2 with a 20.1 the same night to set the stage for a truly breakout season.

Gay, like Spearmon the first Razorback to win his event at the NCAA championships, is fully participating in workouts and will be the favorite to defend his 100-meter crown.

Senior Terry Gatson ran the third-fastest collegiate 400 meters ever to take runner-up honors behind world record holder Kerron Clement of Florida.

"We expect him to do well," Brauman said. "We always have. He's just stepped up to a new range and we'll see how it goes outside."

Senior Omar Brown was fifth in the 200 for his first All-American honor and was the anchor leg on the 4x100 team that posted the second fastest time in school history and won the event for the first time at the SEC meet.

Brown went down with a hamstring injury in the 200 preliminaries at the NCAA meet and the team settled for a fifth-place with alternate Creighton Kiper pressed into duty and earning All-American as a freshman.

Brown, Gay, Gatson and Spearmon, in no particular order, will run the 4x400 and Gatson may move up to run the 800 to anchor the sprint medley relay.

Freshman Michael Grant, who also played cornerback for the football team last fall, will run a 200-meter leg on the sprint medley relay and Brauman said the former Georgia state champion who defeated former Hog All-American and current Green Bay corner Ahmad Carroll is making steady improvement.

"We're fortunate that we have some guys who can really run right now and that helps keeping everyone in a group every day," Brauman said.

Brauman said Spearmon could run his first open 200 at the Mt. SAC Relays on April 15 and the question isn't if Spearmon will go under 20 seconds, but when and how far under.

"He's obviously gotten better, but you hope for that with a full year of training," Brauman said. "He's maturing into a world class athlete. As far as times or any expectations, I don't try to put any of that on him. Just go out there and try to win the race and whatever time pops up, hopefully it's fast."

Senior Jaanus Uudmae was fourth in the triple jump at the NCAA indoors and McDonnell hopes he can improve on that and get something from freshman Chessly Johnson, the Texas state record holder in the event.

Uudmae will long and triple jump this week. McDonnell is also expecting production in the 5,000 from freshman Shawn Forrest, junior Marc Rodrigues and senior Jason Sandfort, who also automatically qualified in the 10,000 at Stanford.

Said Ahmed and Adam Perkins will run the 1,500 and Ahmed should be a contender for the title after posting a career-best of 3:37.49 last summer.

Some of the best competition the Razorbacks will see this season will be in their workouts and McDonnell says that's the recipe for success.

"Competition makes perfect," he said. "If you're the lone ranger and you have no competition, when you do get in competition it's hard to handle. That's what's made us good over the years. We've had great competition in practice all the time. You can's slack off or you'll be embarrassed.

"But that's what makes a good athlete. That's what makes good teams."

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