Still Schmidt is reminding every Dog involved not to miss the moment when its time to perform. "Unlike other sports you have no time for mistakes, it is hundredths of a second that may get you into the finals or make you an All-American." Or, may not because at this level slivered seconds separate all-Americans (the top eight in ever individual or team event) from also-rans. It's something Schmidt has seen over and over and over in his now-21 seasons in charge of Mississippi State track and field.
The difference this June is Schmidt goes to the nationals more optimistic than most years. "We feel really excited about the NCAA Championships," he said. "We have a chance on both sides to be in the top-twenty, and possibly on the men's side in the top-ten. But it's a difficult task. They just have to go out and perform every day, every round, every step. Don't blink. If they do that we have a chance as a team." Individually, too, with a good chance of adding to the tally of 33 All-Americas (indoor and outdoor) produced during Schmidt's tenure.
For State to be talking top-ten or –twenty status in the NCAA Championship standings might sound odd given that in the SEC meet in mid-May the Bulldog men came in eighth and the women 11th. But that has more to do with both the strength of this league overall as well as that MSU doesn't have the roster to compete in all offered events. A better clue to hopes for next week at the national meet is how State performed in the Mideast Regional held May 29-30 in Louisville, Ky.
There the MSU men won three first-place finishes and ended up fifth out of 94 teams entered. "But we were the fourth SEC team, and two points out of third," Schmidt pointed out, saying the SEC left the Big Ten, Big East, and Conference USA in their collective wake. State could easily enough have moved up a notch at regionals had Schmidt opted to push a tender hamstring on sprinter John Bailey in the 400 meters a bit harder. "We asked John to take it easy in the finals because he was already in nationals and we needed him for the 4x4 and he hadn't run since (April 4). If we had turned him loose we would have been third." Which would not have mattered at all in the next round since there are no seedings as such.
Now, "We're carrying the same amount of points (in the athletes who advanced to Fayetteville) into the nationals, possibly, and if they perform the way they have been we could be top-ten. It would be huge for the program."
Meanwhile the women's team was 16th out of 116 teams at regionals, and again are taking all the points-getters to nationals where if they match their output a top-twenty finish is possible. At Louisville the Bulldogs got better than expected points from long jumper Wendy Copeland with a 2nd-place finish, matching her SEC score; while Priscilla Gaines was fourth in the same event and Marissa Harris fourth in the 100-meter hurdles. Harris and La Quinta Aaron did not get to run their best events in fact because the women's heptathlon was not held in the regionals. "Marrisa and La Quinta have been solid all year," Schmidt said. "Actually La Quinta qualified for nationals in three events and Marissa in two, she could be all-American in both next weekend." Which would mean that many more points towards State's best showing ever at a NCAAs on the women's side.
"And when we were 15th, 16th one year it was with Tiffany McWilliams winning two events. This was a collective better meet, not just one person doing it."
There are high hopes for all the men running---and they are all indeed running—in Fayetteville. Dwight Mullings gave the NCAA a heads-up when he won the 400 dash at regionals with a 45.66 clocking. He has a chance to better what older brother Steve did in winning the SEC 100-meter title a few years ago, as he takes the third-best 400 time in the country to nationals. He will also take first leg in the 4x4.
Bailey will also run in the 400 where he was third at the SEC after a long layoff and is 7th in NCAA standings. "He's a mainstay of our team and has national championship experience," Schmidt said. "He was our anchor and ran 45-flat in the mile relay and brought us home to victory." That was in the regionals when the 4x4 team turned a 3:04.72 to take first place…in their first time to run as a foursome all season.
D' Angelo Cherry has the primo event to run, the 100 meters where he was second in the regionals at 10.07 and is ranked second in the nation only to LSU's Trindon Holliday who also edged him in the SECs. The rookie has broke long-standing State records already and was a junior Olympic champion so this should be just his first turn on the NCAA nationals stage. Which doesn't mean he'll wait his turn to run for the prize, though.
"We've had a great tradition of 100-dash champions at Mississippi State," Schmidt said. "Lorenzo Daniel, Pierre Brown, Marquis Davis, Steve Mullings, hopefully D'Angelo is going to be a SEC champion in a long line at Mississippi State."
And soph Emanuel Meyers is coming off a 400-meter hurdle win at regionals in 50.30, fastest time ever run at that facility. "He came off the tenth hurdle and beat our favorite foe Ole Miss to win," Schmidt noted. A Trinidad native by way of New Jersey, Mayers has international experience and made the 400 semifinals at the world juniors meet.
Other members of the 4x4 team are freshman Trey Charles and Justin Christian who are hoping to add a national title to their regional win, while Delandus O'Neal is a qualified alternate. State has known plenty success in the 4x4 over the years, making the NCAA finals six times in the last eight meets and winning it all back in 1982.
In a sense the Bulldog men surprised people with their showing in regionals, which jumped them up to 23rd in the national rankings. Schmidt said the men "didn't get a lot of respect" in the regular season because of season-ending injuries to 2008 sprint stars. All-American 100-meter man Kendall May was lost with a broken leg while 400-meter ace O'Neal Wilder's fall kneecap problem and spring football obligations led to a redshirt for both. "And we didn't compete indoors (in men's meets) so nobody knows a lot about you until last week."
Now, Schmidt said, both Bulldog teams are targets suddenly. "Everybody is shooting at them on the track so there's a lot of pressure on them to perform, everybody looking to beat you. They're not going to be able to sneak-up on anybody." Plus there is the need to do some sort of pacing since in the four-day nationals schedule there are at least two to three rounds in each event and some runners will have nine races in four days. Health is always an issue and Schmidt admits trainer Jimmy Strickland has been the busiest staff member all spring.
Then there is just the matter of being at the best when the prize is the greatest. Schmidt has seen plenty of failures to go with the victories. "We had a guy, Jude Monye (1994-95) that was a silver medalist in the Olympic Games. He went to the NCAAs and blinked and didn't make the finals. That's what happened to us last year when Jamil Hubbard and O'Neal didn't get after the prelims like they did the SECs and regionals. In 2004 we came out of the SEC meet ranked third in the nation on the men's side but we got so beaten-up running the SEC and regionals they just tore themselves up."
But that is the risk of stepping into the brightest spotlight of the college season. It is the coach's job to have these qualified Dogs at their physical and mental peaks come next week, and he feels good about the chances.
"If they go in understanding it's one second at a time, one jump at a time, one throw at a time, not get ahead of themselves…and not blink."