The Tigers arrived in Sacramento on Monday with a group of outstanding athletes. The men's team has an excellent chance to have its best finish ever at the NCAA Track And Field Outdoor Championships and the women's team features one of the top competitors in the nation in Elva Goulbourne.
"I feel pretty good about where we are right now," says Ralph Spry, who is head coach of the AU men's and women's teams. "There are no surprises. The key people got through. It has been a long season, but a very good season for us."
At least a half dozen teams are expected to have a serious shot at what should be one of the most hotly contested NCAA men's track competitions in years.
Trackwire, which runs the major Top 25 track and field poll, does a breakdown on how the NCAA meet shapes up based on who qualified for each team. It's take on the NCAA meet is that two SEC teams--Auburn and Arkansas--have the best chance at finishing number one. In fact, Trackwire is predicting that if everything goes to form the two teams will tie with 56 points apiece. Although Auburn has had many individual NCAA champs, no Tiger track team has ever won a national crown with the best finish a third place finish in 2000.
The Trackwire Top 25 is loaded with SEC teams after picking Pac 10 powers Southern Cal to finish third with 38 points and UCLA to take fourth with 34. Mississippi State, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and LSU are in the Top 10 while Georgia is tied for 11th with Stanford.
Arkansas easily beat the Tigers head to head at the SEC Track and Field Championships May 15-18 and just edged the Tigers at the NCAA Regionals May 30-31 in Columbus, Ohio by five points. "We did what we had to do get our people qualified at the regionals we needed to get qualified," Spry says. "We could have won the regional meet. We lost by five points to Arkansas in the men's competition when I pulled Leevan Sands out of triple jump because conditions got very bad.
Leevan Sands is strong in two events for the Tigers.
"It was a hazardous environment for a triple jumper," Spry adds. "He's the number one guy in the country. Had he jumped we would have won the regional championship, but he was already qualified for the nationals and our priority all year has been the NCAAs this year. I would have killed myself if we had gotten him hurt at regionals and not had him available for the nationals."
Sands, a junior, is a major threat to score points for the Tigers in the triple jump and long jump. He has a personal best of 57 feet, five inches in the triple jump. When the Tigers finished second at this year's indoor nationals, he set a personal record in the long jump by leaping an AU school record 26 feet, 4 1/2 inches. He set a new personal record at the Mideast Regional with a world class effort of 27 feet, two inches in his last outing.
"Everybody is key in a meet like this that is predicted to be so close, but Leevan Sands and Gabor Mate are two critical athletes for us," Spry says. "That is a potential 28-30 points for us with those two athletes. I think Gabor has to win the discus for us and Leevan has to win the long or triple jump and hopefully finish second in the other one. It would be nice to win both.
"Leevan is ranked one in the long jump and number three in the triple jump, but we have only jumped him a couple of times this year and he is on fire right now. Actually, the triple jump is his best event."
Spry says that there is some strong competition around the country for Sands in both events, but he particularly likes the Auburn junior's chances of winning if he nails one of his attempts." Allen Simms of Southern Cal has the talent to push Sands in Sacramento.
"You never know," Spry says. "On any given day anybody can pop one, but if I had to pick two athletes who were sure bets to win titles I would say Gabor Mate for the men in the discus and Elva Goulbourne for the women," Spry says. "The only one who can beat Gabor is Gabor--if he got sick or something. If Gabor throws a legal mark he is so far ahead of anybody out there, but we are trying to keep things in perspective. You still to go out there and compete because as soon as you lay down and relax somebody will come up and bite you."
Mate broke his own NCAA record earlier this year with a discus toss of 219 feet, nine inches at the San Diego Triton Invitational earlier this season. He is shooting for his third NCAA discus title.
Gabor Mate won the regional after winning his fourth consecutive SEC discus title.
The meet is scored 10 points for a first place in an individual event or relay, eight points for second place down to one point for an eighth place finish. Mate, who is ranked seventh in the hammer throw, also has a chance of scoring in that event. "One point in this meet could be the difference between winning and losing," Spry says. Mate threw his personal best of 215 feet, six inches at in the hammer at the Mideast Regional while sophomore teammate Colton Hodge also qualified for the NCAA meet with a toss of 194-3. His personal best is 204-8.
The mile relay team is a bit of a wildcard for scoring points this week. It is ranked sixth going into the meet with seniors Sanjay Ayer, Tim Green, Fred Sharpe and Dean Griffiths comprising a talented 4x400 group. "I think we can definitely be there, or a little faster than that," Spry says of his team's pre-meet ranking. "Our guys compete hard and we are hungry right now." Its best time this season is 3:05.18.
Ayer qualified first at the NCAA regional with a 45.99 in the 400 and has a personal best time of 44.94 in the event. He was third at the NCAA indoor this year at 45.98. "Sanjay beat the guy at the regionals from Tennessee, Gary Kikaya, who is picked to win the nationals," Spry notes.
"Fred Sharpe has the second fastest time in the 400 meter hurdles so he has a shot at a title. Maurice Smith is the No. 2-ranked competitor in the decathlon in the country and he has a shot to win it. That is what is so neat about this team. We have four or five guys that, if they have a good day, they can win their event."
Smith, a junior, set an Auburn record with 7,925 points at the Texas Relays this year.
In addition to Sharpe, Griffiths is expected to score in the 400 hurdles. He goes into the meet with the third best time in the country this year at 49.03, which is a personal record. He won the regional qualifier in 50.65. Sharpe has a personal-best time of 48.86. "They have the second and third best times in the country, but the hurdles is kind of a scary event," Spry notes. "You can hit a hurdle and stumble. That could happen to us as well as to other competitors, but Dean and Fred have been running solid all year long."
The competition begins Wednesday morning and runs late into the night each day through Saturday. The final event, the men's 4x400 relay, is scheduled to start at 11:30 CDT Saturday night.
"The thing is that is going to make this meet a little different than in the past is that they have added more rounds," Spry says. "You have to go through a qualifying round and then come back another day and do the actual trials and finals. I think that plays in our favor because we are not doubling up too many guys.
"Other teams have guys who are running the 100, 200 and 4x100 relays. When you start adding up all of the races that is five, six or seven races for some of these guys we are going against. I think by not doubling that helps you as you go up the rounds because you can stay fresher and cleaner than those other guys running.
"Again, it is going to boil down to us really staying focused and doing our job. I feel really good about that now."
Spry adds that he is pleased to have a variety of competitors with the chance to score at nationals. "That is what I feel good about," he says. "We have some quality athletes going in who are ranked very high in their events. In these type of meets, there are very few surprises. That is why I feel we have to keep focusing on what we have been doing and not worry about what Arkansas does or what Tennessee does.
"If we go in there and compete like we know we can, and keep the same intensity we have had all year long, I think we have a real chance of bringing it (national title) to Auburn."
An athlete who could be also be a wildcard in the mix for Auburn is freshman Marc Burns. He was injured during the indoor season and didn't compete at the nationals and he missed most of the outdoor season, too. However, He now has a clean bill of health.
Burns opened the outdoor season with a 100-meter time of 10.57 at the Sun Angel Classic in Tempe, Ariz., and then ran a 10.60 at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. He has been dropping his numbers since then. He ran a 10.38 to take fifth at the SEC Championships and finished fourth at the Mideast Regional in 10.24.
"He is getting some respect because (Trackwire) has got him picked seventh," Spry says. "Just to make the finals would be big for him. He is 100 percent now and he is scary. His personal best is 10.18 and he is really close to that now. Sacramento has a really good facility. It is a fast ‘mondo track' and Mark Burns is a guy who was a silver medalist at the World Junior Championships in Jamaica last year. He has been to big competitions. He has been to meets where you have the rounds. He knows what it takes. He is confident now and he knows how critical his points could be to the team if he gets to the finals."
Tiger Ticket Extra: Spry shares what he plans to tell his team prior to the competition beginning on Wednesday. "I am going to tell them that we don't have to do anything differently at this meet than what we have done all year. If we do that, we have a shot at winning the national championship. If we do our job, it is going to put pressure on Arkansas and Tennessee and those schools that have to do their job. It will boil down to who has the best day."
Pre-meet Trackwire Top 25
1. Auburn and Arkansas 56
3. Southern Cal 38
4. UCLA 34
5. Mississippi State 33
6. Tennessee 32
7. South Carolina 31
8. Florida 30
9. LSU and Eastern Michigan 26