Competing For Championships

Phillip Marshall writes about football, basketball and other AU athletic programs in this column.

Auburn's track team didn't bring home the national championship, but it still had the best finish in school history last weekend. The Tigers wound up a remarkable year for Auburn athletics by finishing second in the NCAA Championships. It was, surely, the best overall year ever for Auburn. It should be savored by those who made it happen. And next year could be even better.

There are whispers that the swimmers, who won men's and women's national titles, could be even more dangerous next season. Golf, soccer and track teams--powerhouses all--should be championship contenders again. The gymnastics program is climbing rapidly. But in this space today, let's take a look at the big three sports--football, basketball and baseball.

Sophomore Tre Smith and the football Tigers are expected to challenge for the SEC title in 2003.

The expectations for football are well-known. The Tigers are the preseason favorites to win the Southeastern Conference championship. They were picked by The Sporting News to win the national championship. It will all start on Aug. 30 against Southern California in the most high-profile Auburn opener since the 1984 Kickoff Classic against defending national champion Miami. If the Tigers are to be great, they will have to prove it on the field. There is little question they will be very good.

For the first time in several years, the basketball team will go into next season with some high expectations. Even without Marquis Daniels, the Tigers return a nucleus of players that could contend for the SEC championship and certainly for the West Division championships. They carry with them the confidence that comes from a stirring run to the Sweet 16 last March. The junior class of Brandon Robinson, Lewis Monroe, Marco Killingsworth and Nathan Watson will be where it all begins. There is word that foursome has taken their work ethic and leadership to a new level.

Marco Killingsworth will be a junior this season for the basketball Tigers.

The baseball team will also be among the preseason favorites. The Tigers return high-caliber players in first baseman Karl Amonite, second baseman Tug Hulett, shortstop Chuck Jeroloman, catcher Josh Bell and outfielders Clete Thomas and Sean Gamble. They return perhaps the nation's best closer in Steven Register and top-flight starters in Arnold Hughey and Colby Paxton (if he doesn't sign with a pro team). Chris Dennis should blossom into a starter. Cory Dueitt was a brilliant reliever this season.

The bottom line is that Auburn's athletic program is as strong as it has ever been. That is good, but nothing is ever quite good enough in the world of college athletics. There is always another mountain to be climbed. The swim teams--men and women--have climbed the highest mountain and won national championships. No other Auburn team has done that since the football team won it all in 1957. The difference between being a champion who everybody remembers and an also-ran who becomes a footnote is often ever so slight. Who would have thought Auburn discus thrower Gabor Mate, one of the more dominant performers in NCAA history, would falter when it mattered most? He can't explain it. No one can. It just happened. It will happen again to someone else. So it will always be as long as the competitors we watch perform are human beings.

The first key in college athletics is giving your programs what they need to compete at the highest level. Auburn has done that. Then you need talented athletes and good coaches. Auburn has those. With those things in place, it's a matter of putting yourself in position. If you consistently put yourself in position to contend for a national championship, sooner or later you will win one. And a lot of Auburn teams are in position.

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