And deservedly so.
The junior heptathlete set a school record in the shot put in the heptathlon and posted three consecutive personal bests in the high jump to sit in third place with 3,454 points after day one of the women's heptathlon at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Vanderbilt.
The reigning conference indoor pentathlon champion, McDowell, threw 45 feet, 7 inches to eclipse DeeDee Brown's mark of 42-06 3/4 back in 2002.
She also picked up many unexpected points in the high jump, scoring 806 points with a leap of 5-05 1/4. McDowell cleared the height on her third-and-final jump.
"I just wanted to come out and set the tone for the first day," McDowell said. "Hopefully it will carry over into tomorrow. I got my energy from the high jump. So, I'm happy."
The heptathlon and the overall team title became free for the taking after the co-favorite from South Carolina, Chelsea Hammond, who was the clear leader after two events, failed to score in the shot put after fouling on all three attempts.
Hammond, a senior and last year's runner up, threw her shot out of bounds on her final attempt even though she was standing stationary at the top of the circle.
"It's devestating," said South Carolina coach Curtis Frye after Hammond chose to drop out of the competion. "We just have to pick ourselves up and try and overcome it. We figured she was going to be in the top three. So, there are six points that we won't get."
Hammond's downfall gives hope to others, including defending champion Josie Hahn of Vanderbilt, current leader Jessica Stockard of Georgia (3,505), LaToya McBride of Ole Miss, who is currently second, and McDowell.
Before the meet, Arkansas coach Lance Harter believed the team race would come down to his defending champion Lady'Backs, Tennessee and South Carolina. Hammond's withdrawal puts the Lady Gamecocks' chances on shaky ground.
"That's the nature of this beast. It's like a marathon; it's so unpredictable," Harter said. "Team battle-wise, it gives us another opening. Individually, (McDowell) is in position to qualify for nationals and that is huge."
The automatic qualifying score for the NCAA meet in Sacramento is 5,500 points, while the provisional mark is 5,000. Harter believed around 5,200 would be enough for McDowell to qualify.
McDowell expects to improve her position first thing tomorrow afternoon as the heptathlon turns to one of her top events -- the long jump.
"I just want to come out and be solid, get a big jump off of my first jump -- I always have my big jumps first."
Arkansas freshman Whitney Anderson finished in 12th place after day one with 2,897 points, 508 behind the leader, Jessica Stockard of Georgia.
Lady'Back hammer thrower Brandy Blackwood, who earlier this season at the McDonnell Relays in Fayetteville set a school record throw of 190-10, will compete today at 1 p.m. She is currently the sixth-ranked hammer thrower in the conference.
Blackwood finished eighth at last year's SEC Outdoor meet, throwing 179-9.
NCAA Indoor 800 champion Aneita Denton aims for the SEC outdoor crown in the preliminaries this evening at 7:15.
Denton is four seconds better than the next closest qualifier, Shay Shelton of South Carolina. Denton has qualified with a 2:03.94.
The 800 is also an event where Arkansas excel as it fields three competitors ranked in the top six -- Denton, Paige Ferrell (3) and Erica Sigmont (6).
All eyes will be on the return of Tennessee's reigning conference indoor 800 champion and collegiate indoor record holder Nicole Cook, who suffered a lower right leg injury in warm-ups at the Sea Ray Relays in Knoxville, Tenn., earlier this season.
Today will be her first attempt at the 800 during the outdoor season.
"She's been training, so we will see (today)," said Lady Volunteers coach J.J. Clark. "She's a champion. She's a competitor. She's a warrior. She will come here get her mark for regionals and she's getting stronger as the weeks go."
Arkansas' game plan of dominating the distance events will undergo its first test this evening with the finals of the 10,000. The Lady'Backs have five of the top nine qualifiers entered with a real chance to pile on some early points.
"If we can score 15 (points) that would be great," Harter said.
Alison Zeinner-Rush is the top-ranked Lady'Back with a time of 33:44.36, second behind Auburn's Angela Homan. Penny Splichal, Laura Jokosky, Jessie Gordon and Beth Fahey are also in the top nine.
The Lady'Backs field two sprinters in the 200 prelims with Lakiesha Martin (25.49) and Sydney Scarbrough (24.86), but both are well behind the pace of South Carolina's Shalonda Solomon, who has posted a qualifying time of 22.86.
McDowell Eyeing Conference Double
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