The 2008 season has the makings of a banner year for Arkansas track and field. Motivated by an uncharacteristic performance in 2007, head coach John McDonnell’s track Hogs will be looking to add to Arkansas’ collection of NCAA and SEC trophies and titles.
McDonnell, along with assistant coaches Dick Booth and Kyle White, has rounded up high-caliber newcomers to join with experienced veterans to form a group of student-athletes ready to take on the challenge of maintaining Arkansas’ famed perennial-powerhouse image.
“This is a tightly knit group,” McDonnell said. “The leadership wasn’t there last year but we have leaders this year. This is a young group with a lot of experience. Our
upperclassmen will be able to lead our younger guys. I’ve always said if you don’t have leadership, you won’t have a winning team. We have it this year.”
During his 36th season at the helm of the Razorback program, McDonnell and his staff have their sights set on Arkansas’ 21st SEC triple crown (winning SEC titles in cross country, indoor and outdoor) and the possibility of winning two more NCAA Championships.
McDonnell’s distance squad welcomes back All-American Scott MacPherson and national qualifiers James Strang, Colin Costello and Shawn Forrest. Forrest is returning to competition after redshirting the 2007 season while recovering from a stress fracture in his foot.
New to the distance group will be Lane Boyer, Michael Chinchar, Alex McClary, Andy McClary, Alex Neff and Duncan Phillips.
“We have some great freshmen coming in, Duncan Phillips, Michael Chinchar, Lane Boyer and Alex Neff,” McDonnell said. “They have lots of great experience running in some difficult meets and races. Duncan was coached by a former Razorback in high school so he is used to our type of training.”
Veterans Tyler Hill, Chris Barnicle and Daniel LaCava will also be returning with another year of experience under their belts. Hill earned huge points for the Razorbacks on the conference level in 2007.
“Daniel LaCava, Tyler Hill, Chris Barnicle, they are also in the mix,” McDonnell said. “They have done some great things in the past and I expect more good things out of them this season.”
Alex and Andy McClary, transfers from Cal, redshirted the 2007 season. Alex specializes in the 800 meters and Andy typically competes in the 1,500 meters but both have run distances from legs of the 4×400-meter relays to 5,000 meters. Andy finished fifth in the 1,500 meters at the 2007 USA Championships and earned a spot on Team USA at the Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Freshman Chris Bilbrew will also add some depth in the middle distance group. Bilbrew has competed at distances from 400 meters to a mile while competing for Smiths Station High School. Bilbrew will concentrate on the 800 meters and aiding on the 4×400-meter relay while competing for the Hogs.
“Chris wants to run in a lot of races and he’s a guy we are going to have to pull the ropes on,” assistant coach White said. “He knows what he is in store for. He encourages that. He’s going to be able to help across the board, in two or three events.”
In the field events, assistant coach Booth welcomes back All-Americans Alain Bailey, Nkosinza Balumbu and Bentonville native Mychael Stewart. Balumbu finished third in the triple jump during the indoor season and was sixth at the outdoor championships.
“I think Nkosinza would think last year was a disappointment for him,” Booth said. “He had a plantar fasciiitis problem with his foot that probably bothered him more than he let on. I have really high expectations for Nkosinza. He’s a leader on the team and I really feel like he’s going to have just a great year.”
Bailey’s stellar freshman campaign ended abruptly in 2007 after tearing his meniscus and spraining his MCL at the SEC Outdoor Championships. After undergoing surgery to repair the tear, Bailey is expected to be back in top form for 2008.
“Outside of the knee surgery at the end of the season, I really felt like Alain was coming along,” Booth said. “I expect him to be a contender for the national championship in the long jump and a much-improved high jumper. He’s a first-class kid who is really going to be a leader for us.”
Jack-of-all-trades Mychael Stewart earned All-America honors in the long jump during the indoor season and qualified for the outdoor championships as a leg of the 4×100-meter relay during the outdoor season. He will once again be looked upon to contribute in the long and triple jumps and the sprints.
“I’m going to give Mychael a better shot at the triple jump this year,” Booth said. “If he could just learn that technique a little bit better, he’s got the speed and the strength you need to do it well. He could be a surprise. He’s gifted and he’s a good runner. I think he’ll be one of our better guys and he’ll score points for us.”
Stewart also made major headway in the sprints in 2007. In addition to his duties on the 4×100-meter relay, he also provisionally qualified for the 60 meters indoors and regionally qualified for the 100 meters outdoors.
“Mychael is willing to do anything for the team,” assistant coach White said. “It’s going to be a good year for Mychael, especially coming off the season he had in 2007. He’s always excited and hopefully that excitement spreads through the sprints group.”
Joining the All-Americans will be jumper Daniel Quinn, high jumper Brent Rosson and heptathlete/decathlete Boris Roslov. Quinn made major improvements in 2007 and will look to build on the momentum he gained.
“Daniel finished up well at the end of the year,” Booth said. “He got a 25-foot long jump and a 50-foot triple jump last year and those are break through numbers. He’ll be a good scorer at the conference level. I’m going into the year thinking there is a good chance of him being an All-American.”
Rosson also hit a major milestone in 2007, clearing a collegiate best 6-10 and qualifying for the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships.
“It was very encouraging for Brent to clear 6-10 on numerous occasions last year,” Booth said. “He has stepped it up with his jumping. I’m really hoping for him to get seven feet this year. That’ll be a great accomplishment and he can go forward from there.”
Booth will also be welcoming six newcomers, including Bryant native Spencer McCorkel. McCorkel was the nation’s best prep pole vaulter during the 2007 season and finished third at the USA Junior Championships.
“What a great kid Spencer is,” Booth said. “The thing that I’m going to be careful not to do is let the expectations for him get too high. The type of training we do and the year round training we do will be new for him. I think he’ll respond very positively.”
Luke Laird will join lettermen Kyle Komarek in javelin training. Komarek was an NCAA Mideast Regional qualifier and scored points for the Hogs at the SEC Championships.
“Kyle has been here all summer, lifting weights and doing some throwing,” Booth said. “He’ll move up the conference list and we have some good throwers in our conference. I can see him qualifying for Nationals and breaking through to that next level.”
J-Mee Samuels will lead the 2008 sprints group and has the resume to back it up. An All-American, fifth at the USA Championships and a member of Team USA at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, Samuels will be looked upon to continue the momentum he started generating in June.
“I expect a lot out of J-Mee (Samuels) because we are through with our introductory process,” assistant coach Kyle White said. “We both know what we want and how to get there. That combined with the fact that he ran so well at the end of the year at the USA Championships, the sky is the limit with J-Mee.”
Samuels will be joined by returners Stewart, Cedric Zellner and Kent Austell.
“Cedric is definitely an overachiever,” White said. “A lot of people didn’t believe in him before he came to Arkansas. We gave him a chance and he has developed well. He made such a big stride last year.”
Austell concentrates on the 400-meter hurdles and can also contribute to the 4×400-meter relay.
“Kent is an amazing guy,” White said. “He’ll do anything you ask him to do without questioning. He’s gotten good and last year was huge. Because he is so smart and he is so open to change, we made some changes last year and he sacrificed a year learning my way of doing things and learning my philosophy on doing the 400-meter hurdles. He didn’t have to do that. This year he knows what is going on and he knows where I want to lead him. His determination is going to go a long way.”
The Razorbacks will stay close to home during the indoor portion of the schedule, hosting two home meets in January, the Tyson Invitational and the SEC Indoor Championships in February and, in March, the Arkansas Last Chance Qualifier and the 2008 NCAA Championships. At this season’s NCAA Championships, McDonnell and his squad will be on the hunt for Arkansas’ 20th national indoor title.
Arkansas will host the SEC Championships in its’ quest for a 27th indoor conference championship, Feb. 29-March 2. In March, the Razorbacks will host a Last Chance Qualifier in preparation for the 2008 NCAA Championships in Fayetteville (March 9-10).