Regionals Start Of Title Defense For Hogs

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Top-ranked Arkansas begins its defense of its NCAA outdoor title today.

More than a thousand miles from Sacramento, Calif., the actual site of the NCAA Track and Field Championships, is the first round of competition at Indiana University.

Finally, the Mideast Regional and three others like it around the nation have achieved the "do or die" importance the NCAA has been trying to foist onto the coaches and athletes who have treated the three-year old system as an inconvenience with rules to be circumvented since its inception.

False-starting intentionally to avoid running or jogging through a race with at-large bids assured through previous season-best times is out.

Now it's finish in the top eight or stay at home in June, regardless of ranking.

Schools like LSU and Wisconsin successfully manipulated loopholes in the system for the last two years, each advancing multiple athletes through questionable interpretations of the "honest effort" rule.

Arkansas was bit on both the men's and women's side last year when the meet referee excused eventual Olympians Alistair Cragg and Veronica Campbell from competition because of injury, which was allowed at the 2003 regionals.

The NCAA overruled that decision based on a 2004 rule change, disqualifying Cragg, who made the Olympic finals of the 5,000 meters, from the 5K and Campbell, who won two golds and a bronze in Athens, from the 100 and 200.

McDonnell could have had Cragg jog through the 5K like a healthy Matt Tegenkamp of Wisconsin did, or even make the ridiculous scene of a runner actually false-starting in the long run, but McDonnell is too proud to advance an athlete in that fashion and he was assured the initial ruling would hold up.

Now with every loophole closed, the NCAA is forcing everyone to run, jump and throw to win at regionals.

Fortunately for Arkansas, that's the way the Razorbacks have always competed while winning 40 NCAA titles, including the last two outdoor crowns.

Last year, Chris Mulvaney and Said Ahmed kicked around freshman teammate Sam Vazquez to take first and third in the 1,500.

Either could have allowed Vazquez to pass them and get an automatic spot in the top five, but instead he was sixth and got in on his own merit with his season-best time.

In a similar situation at the West Region, Stanford runners slowed and allowed their teammates to pass them down the stretch to snatch up automatic bids while they were awarded at-larges for their season times.

There's no chance for similar gallantry, misguided or not, under the new system where any slip-up can cost a trip to the national championships.

The Razorbacks bring a record 26 athletes including two relays to Bloomington for the two-day competition, which compares to the four-day conference meet crammed into half the time minus the decathlon and 10,000 meters.

"We have to do it as good as anybody else or better or we won't be at the national meet," McDonnell said. "That's the bottom line."

Tony Ugoh and Greg Martin get things started for Arkansas today at 12:05 p.m. in the discus and high jump, respectively with running events getting under way with the 4x100-meter relay prelims at 4:15.

It will be a busy weekend for Arkansas sprinters Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon Jr., who will run the 4x100, 100 and 200 prelims.

Omar Brown and freshman Michael Grant will anchor and lead off the 4x100 relay with Spearmon and Gay second and third, respectively.

The unit had near-perfect passes and ran a season-best time at the Southeastern Conference Championships two weeks ago. In a fast heat, Arkansas should have a good chance at advancing its teams to Sacramento.

Spearmon, a two-time NCAA champion at 200 meters while in his sophomore season, leads the nation in the 200 with his school-record and collegiate fifth-best all time 19.97 and his 100 entry is more of a backup with him unlikely to run both at the NCAA Championships.

Gay won the 100 and was fourth in the 200 last year at the NCAA Championships. The senior will defend his Mideast Region titles in both events with the plan to double in Sacramento.

"Probably the only one who will try (to double) will be Tyson," McDonnell said. "Wallace, it would be foolish to try and double him. We may put him on the 1,600 relay. He's not going to get away easy."

Joined by Brown and Terry Gatson, Gay and Spearmon will also run the 4x400-meter relay on Saturday and McDonnell believes each relay should have a chance to make the top three and give Arkansas even more options in June.

"We can decide if we run one or both or none of them," McDonnell said.

Arkansas already has Josphat Boit, Peter Kosgei and Jason Sandfort automatically qualified for the NCAA Championships in the 10,000.

Kosgei, currently ranked second nationally and a favorite to win in the steeplechase, will double with the 10K provided he doesn't suffer an incredible misfortune Saturday night.

Boit will try to make the NCAA field in the 5,000 finals tonight at 8:20.

The major question marks tonight will be Gatson in the 400 prelims and Said Ahmed in the first round of the 1,500.

Gatson has been plagued for more than a month by a sore back and the school indoor record holder at the distance can make the finals if he can avoid cramps in the one-lap dash.

Ahmed is suffering from a hamstring injury suffered days before the SEC meet, but he worked out recently and McDonnell pronounced him 90 percent.

Ahmed must survive a tough preliminary round in the 1,500 with several tough outs from Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Butler in the mix.

From there, it's a top eight finish and with the sixth-best seed time in the nation, Ahmed would be assured an at-large bid.

With so many rounds in such a short time, McDonnell's main goal outside of advancing his money players is keeping them healthy.

"You always worry," McDonnell said. "We worry about the sprinters and then Said Ahmed goes down. You never know.

"You just have to shoot the gun and see what happens."

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