Track Dogs Hitting Stride In Time For NCAAs

That notion of ‘cautious optimism'? Not Al Schmidt. Not this year. Not this NCAA Championship meet. "This is the best group of men and women we've ever sent. So it comes down to what I've told them before, don't blink."

Indeed, the opportunities for Mississippi State to make their individual and collective marks at next week's national championships will come and go in the proverbial blink of an eye. Or at least as long as it takes to complete each event at Oregon's Hayward Field. The 2010 edition of the NCAA meet runs June 9-12 with finals to be televised on Friday and Saturday by CBS.

With any luck, or more accurately without any bad luck, Mississippi State has excellent opportunities for representation in several finals. A total of fourteen Bulldogs—seven men and seven women—are making the trip to Eugene after qualifying in nine events.

"So we've got enough firepower to do something," says Schmidt. Some big things, too, according to the 22nd-year Bulldog head coach. "These guys and gals are on a roll and they look very good. This is probably the best situation we've ever had with every athlete in every situation."

It is an outstanding situation for the Bulldogs heading to Eugene. This men's squad certainly expects to do better than the 17th-place team finish of 2009, when they also had seven athletes competing and scored 14 points. That was the best showing in a NCAA meet since the 2002 Bulldogs scored 20 points and tied for 15th. State's highest-ever finish in a national meet was waaaay back in 1923, the Don Scott Era, with a second-placing at Chicago.

Making the top-twenty in this more modern era is a fine feat for most programs. Schmidt is setting the proverbial bar a little higher this time around though. "We are comfortable we can be in the top ten if we perform. How far in the top ten depends on other people, but we feel good about it." National pollsters certainly give State a good shot at top-ten team status, ranking the Bulldog men #9 in the pre-NCAAs listing.

As far as the individuals, Bulldogs are well-represented in these latest rankings which definitely bode well for championship chances. Six Dog runners are listed at the moment, topped by freshman phenomenon Tavaris Tate. He is ranked #2 nationally in the 400-meter dash after winning the event in last week's NCAA Regional in Greensboro, N.C. The Starkville native also shared a first in the 4x400 relay at the regional meet. That group is ranked #3 nationally.

Tate will also run in the 4x100 relay in Eugene. He will be joined by Dwight Mullings in all three events, meaning these are the busiest Bulldogs at the nationals. Senior Mullings is ranked #5 in the 400 dash himself. For that matter, sophomore O'Neal Wilder is #9 at the moment, meaning Mississippi State is the only program with a trio of sprinters to own a top-20 national ranking in the 400… or as Schmidt pointed out, a world ranking to boot.

Wilder, the former football receiver, is part of the 4x400 team with Tate, Mullings, and Emmanuel Mayers. The latter will himself represent State in the 400 meter hurdles. The 4x100 team is Tate, Mullings, Justin Christian, and Kendall May, who make up the #5 unit in this week's national rankings.

Also making the trip is Garren Hendricks as a MSU alternate in the 4x400.

Schmidt is confident his runners are right on-stride in time for June and the national meet. "I think we came out of Greensboro really in the best shape we think we could have," he said. As in, nobody hurting or over-worked, despite some strong post-season performances at the SEC meet in Knoxville and the recent regional. The Bulldogs placed 7th in the conference championships, exactly where the coaching staff had projected them to come in.

The 400 dash is obviously the starting point for State's NCAA points-race with all three Dogs qualified capable of getting to the line first. "Tavaris is ranked #3 in the world right now, Dwight is #10 and O'Neal 16th. So we feel we have some quality points."

"We're confident in the 4x1 we can make the finals and be a force," Schmidt continued. "We won the SEC Championship and that's as hard as the NCAAs. The 4x4 we ran third in Greensboro and probably still had more in the tank. So both those relays we're going to in in some people's minds not as favorites, but in our minds we can win those two."

Curiously not winning in the regional may have done the Dogs some good, by getting nerves out of the way. In the last exchange State was very close to over-stepping the handoff zone. "Kids get excited," Schmidt explained. "Our anchor was a little early taking off!" But the baton was in-hand just barely within bounds and the good finish hinted at what the group will do with a cleaner handoff." Then there is May, who was an All-American in 2008 in the hurdles before missing '09 with a broken leg. He's back on-form for this season and can score more points.

Enough for Mississippi State to crack that top-ten? "We're going to nationals in the best shape we've been in since 2005," Schmidt said. Though, MSU's best previous shot should have been in 2003 when the squad showed up for the nationals with a #3 team ranking. Not much went as hoped that time. "But I knew then we were so beat-up, we had other athletes that would help us but it was the first year we had regions, the SECs were a war that year, and our guys came out beat to death." In trackman terms anyway. This bunch is fresher for the final week of the season.

Not only that but the NCAA schedule is kinder. "The final sets up perfect," Schmidt said. "It's the first time the 4x1 and 4x4 are free of the 400 meters, so they'll be done. The unfortunate point about Saturday is we're running at 9:30 in the morning so we can be on CBS! But for our guys its perfect, the finals in the 400 Friday night and then get to run the 4x1 and 4x4 without being dead. It's like the NCAA had us in mind this year!"

Even the venue ought to favor several State styles, with the turn-radii at Oregon much looser than, say, at Tennessee where the SECs were run. "If the turns are longer it's to our advantage," Schmidt said. "And it's a faster surface than Tennessee, and I think a better surface than at Greeensboro." By the way, the Eugene surface is the same thing Mississippi State is currently installing for the Bulldogs' home track next season.

Meanwhile, if the Bulldog women aren't ranked as a team the way their men counterparts are, this is still a strong contingent for the nationals. LaQuinta Aaron is the SEC's second-best heptathlete this year, as well as #2 in program history. Kiesha Wallace is second in MSU records in the 100 hurdles, Jody-Ann Muir has the best freshman time at State in the 400 dash. The 4x400 team of Aaron, Muir, Crystal Wilson, and Taneisha Baker holds the school record set at the SEC meet.

Wendy Copeland will also make the trip to compete in the long jump, where she is ranked #18 nationally, while Rachel Farquharson is an alternate for the 4x400. "Our women we feel have been a real success story," Schmidt said. Aaron goes to Eugene the nation's #8-ranked heptathlete. Muir and Wilson are 14th and 22nd in the 400 individually.

"Anything can happen and they can make the finals," Schmidt said of the women's chances. "And our 4x4 team have shattered all expectations, and we think they have a lot more in them."

Schmidt also saw something in State's teams that hadn't been obvious before. These Dogs have an attitude. That might have been why the '03 squad also came up short, or slow, in the nationals; as the coach said, "They had clay feet at times. This team is not designed that way at all, they have confidence." It showed blatantly a week ago when before and during a relay run SEC rivals from Florida began a chant meant to intimidate State in particular.

Instead, "Our kids went into this chant ‘Maroon, White'," Schmidt said. "They were screaming back and forth at each other." So the coach isn't worried any of his athletes will fold under pressure on the biggest college stage of all. Not this time. Not this team.

"Definitely, we talk about national champions. You can't guarantee anything. They know what the other teams have. But they're not backing off winning their individual national championships," Schmidt said.

"We've had what some on the team say is a blessed year; the Penn Relays, the SECs, the NCAA first round. So if we can keep it up…"

Yes, if the Bulldogs do keep it up it may be the folk in other lanes who blink first.


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