Cragg Claims NCAA 5,000-meter Crown; Hogs in L
BY ANDRES FOCIL
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The first day of the 2004 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships was highlighted with senior Alistair Cragg claiming his third-straight national 5,000-meter title in front of a hometown crowd of 5,074 at the Randal Tyson Track Center. With the help of Cragg, the No. 1 ranked Razorbacks were able to tally 23 points, but they will be in for a dogfight for the title on Saturday.
Texas and Florida are tied in second with 21 points. Purdue is alone in fourth with 13, while UCLA and LSU are sharing fifth with 11 points. LSU has a powerful duo of triple jumpers and Florida has a stronghold in the middle distances that will give Arkansas a challenge when it comes to picking up important points in the team race.
“Alistair was superb,” Arkansas head coach John McDonnell said. “The way he ran was great. I was tickled with the DMR. Sam (Vazquez) ran a great leadoff leg for a freshman. He really fought through the pack to get ahead. (Michael) Taylor went out and gave it his all. Everyone ran great. That DMR was real important for us after the 200.”
Cragg successfully defended his 5,000-meter title as he took the tape with a time of 13:39.63 and gave Arkansas its first 10 points for the weekend. The now five-time NCAA champion staged a dominating race, passing Stanford’s All-American Ian Dobson and 2003 NCAA Cross Country champion Dathan Ritzenhein of Colorado. Cragg pulled to a sizable lead with 800 meters remaining and never looked back.
“At NCAA’s the race is never easy, but I felt comfortable out there,” Cragg said. “I was going out there to get 10 points for Arkansas. My tactic was to sit back at first, then kick and not bring anyone along with me, and it worked. There were good runners out there. This title means a lot to me and winning three in a row is special, but I still have one more race tomorrow.”
With his victory he became the first athlete in the history of the NCAA meet to capture the title three-consecutive years. Jonah Koech of Iowa State won the race three times, but not consecutively. He claimed first in 1990, 1991 and 1993.
Cragg also became the first track athlete at Arkansas to three-peat in an event. UA’s talented jumpers have been lucky enough to bring home three-straight titles on three different occasions. Mike Conley did it in the triple jump in 1983-85, Erick Walder dominated in the long and triple jumps from 1992-94 and Robert Howard grabbed top honors in the triple jump from 1996-98.
The distance medley relay was the other bright spot for the Hogs as they garnered eight points and runner-up accolades with a time of 9:32.12. Michigan took the top spot with a new collegiate record time of 9:27.77, breaking Stanford’s 9:28.83 from 2000.
Freshman Sam Vazquez ran the leadoff leg with a split time of 2:55. With 13 teams in the race Vazquez did an excellent job of breaking through the crowd of competitors and pulled the Hogs into second place behind Michigan. The Palm Coast, Fla., native handed off to junior transfer Terry Gatson who pulled the Hogs closer to the leader with a 400 time of 40.62. Junior James Hatch received the baton next and powered the team to first place. He established a good 20-meter lead over the Wolverines with a split time of 1:47.30. For the second-straight year junior Michael Taylor handled anchor leg duties. Taylor held the lead for a majority of the mile portion over former collegiate 3K record holder Nick Willis, but Taylor couldn’t hold on and with two laps left he was edged out of the lead.
With their performances Vazquez, Gatson and Hatch each earned their first career All-America honors. It also marked the first time in three years Arkansas has registered points in the event. In 2001 the DMR team produced the same second-place results with Sam Glover, Dirk Heinze, Sharif Karie and Chris Mulvaney.
The 200-meter dash had the potential to bring quality points to Arkansas’ total, but in a loaded field sophomore Tyson Gay and freshman Wallace Spearmon were only able to come in fifth and eighth to contribute five points.
Gay was carrying the nation’s top time of 20.40, but in tonight’s final he finished fifth with a time of 20.58. The race was very close and he was only one hundredths of a second from second place. The prelims saw him post the fastest qualifying time of 20.63. Spearmon came in eighth (20.93) after turning in a time of 20.86 in the prelims. With their finishes both earned their first All-America honors as Razorbacks and it was the first time in UA history that two runners were able to earn the honor in the same season.
Gay will have another chance to compete when he lines up in the 60-meter dash at 7:25 p.m. on Saturday. In today’s preliminary heats he turned in the fourth-fastest qualifying time (6.69).
“The 200 didn’t help us,” McDonnell said. “Tyson is alright. He just has to come back tomorrow and compete well. I was pleased with Wallace. He broke 21 seconds each time he raced. We have good people racing tomorrow with Tyson in the 60, Chris in the mile and Alistair in the 3K. It will definitely be a battle.”
Senior Chris Mulvaney came one step closer to defending his mile title when he advanced to the finals with a preliminary time of 4:02.92. Mulvaney took it nice and easy around the track and cruised to third in his heat. His time was also third overall. The finals of the mile are slated to begin at 6:25 p.m.
In the prelims of the 60-meter hurdles senior Michael Thomas missed qualifying to the finals by 12 thousandths of a second. Thomas posted a 7.77 in the third heat as he crossed the line in third. Not having Thomas in the finals was an unpleasant surprise since his top time of 7.69 this season was third in the nation and at last year’s championships he garnered All-America honors with a fourth-place showing.
The prelims of the 400-meter dash with Gatson was next on the schedule for the Hogs. He clocked a time of 47.60, but was unable to advance to the finals. His fastest time this season (46.35) came at the SEC Championships on Feb. 28.
On Saturday Mulvaney’s mile run will be Arkansas’ first running competition and the day will wrap up with Cragg aiming to defend his 3,000-meter title at 7:50 p.m. Every point will be crucial as the Hogs look for an unprecedented 39th NCAA Championship.
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