Razorbacks Fall Two Points Short of Conference
BY ANDRES FOCIL
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Senior Alistair Cragg and junior Tyson Gay turned in flawless individual performances, but in the end a bizarre finish still left the University of Arkansas two points short of Florida for the men’s team title at the 2004 Southeastern Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships.
The Gators survived a disqualification in the meet’s final event to edge the Razorbacks 128-126 at the Nutter Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Kentucky. The team race was tight all day long with the lead changing hands several times down the stretch.
The Gators appeared to be in the driver’s seat leading by two points heading into the final event as the favorite in the 1,600-meter relay. Florida looked to have it sewn up early in the race after Arkansas senior Maurice Bridges tripped up and collided with South Carolina’s leadoff man in the first leg of the relay. Both runners went down and neither Arkansas nor South Carolina finished the race. The Gators went on to take the tape in the relay to seemingly clinch the crown.
Following the race, however, Florida was disqualified for causing the pile up that ousted the Hogs and Gamecocks. Even with the disqualification, Arkansas couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity because the Razorbacks did not finish the race. If the Hogs’ could’ve continued after the fall, Arkansas would have finished sixth earning three points. Coupled with Florida’s disqualification that would have vaulted the Razorbacks to an improbable 129-128 victory.
“All we had to do was finish the race and we would’ve won the meet,” Arkansas head coach John McDonnell said. “Even if you drop the baton, you can’t leave anything to chance. That’s not the way you would like to win it, but if you are knocked down you might have a chance to win it. What makes you feel bad is that we could have won by jogging the mile relay.
“But there is no use blaming anything. It’s just one of those things that happened. What’s done is done. I don’t want to take anything away from Florida. If none of that would’ve happened they would have won the meet.”
It marked only the second time since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992 that the Hogs failed to bring home the first-place trophy at the conference indoor meet. Arkansas had won 11 of the last 12 SEC indoor championships including seven consecutive victories. Ironically, the last time Arkansas finished second was to Tennessee on the same track in 1996.
The frenetic finish received its share of attention following the meet, but far from lost in the shuffle was the phenomenal individual performances turned in by senior Alistair Cragg and junior Tyson Gay.
Cragg, Gay and Auburn long and triple jumper Leevan Sands scored 20 points a piece to tie for the Commissioner’s Trophy, an award given to the top individual scorer in the meet. Cragg became the first track athlete in SEC history to win the award three consecutive times. He shared the honor with David Kimani of Alabama and Justin Gatlin of Tennessee in 2002 before winning the award outright last year. The Razorback duo’s effort also marked the first time that teammates have shared the award in league history.
Cragg (13:42.95) outclassed the field in the 5,000-meter run and crossed the finish more than 20 seconds in front of runner-up and teammate Jason Sandfort (14:05.42). In the process, the Johannesburg, South Africa, native shattered a 14-year old SEC championship meet record. Cragg polished off a weekend that saw him win the 3,000-meter run in similar dominating fashion on Saturday.
Perhaps the most impressive individual performances of the meet came from the Razorbacks’ top sprinter. Gay, a Lexington, Ky., native and Lafayette High School product, excelled in front of a large hometown contingent including his parents and high school coach. He started the day by blazing to a school record time of 6.57 to win the 60-meter dash. Gay became the first Razorback in school history to win that event at a conference meet.
In the 200-meter dash, Gay smoked the field in an SEC and school record time of 20.40. Gay’s time was the fastest time run in the country this year and the sixth fastest time ever run by an American. His split of 20.40 also ranked as the 11th-best time in the world in track and field history. He also became only the second Razorback (Jimmy French – 1992) to win a conference individual title in the 200 meters.
“We had some great individual performances,” McDonnell said. “Those two guys were just awesome. When you look at what they were able to do against the best in the country, it is phenomenal.”
Arkansas put itself in position for a late run at the team crown by topping the field in the Distance Medley Relay. Junior Mike Taylor, freshman Ryan Botha, freshman Sam Vazquez and senior Chris Mulvaney turned in a winning time of 9:41.80. The Razorbacks have now won nine of the 11 Distance Medley Relays contested since the event was added to the conference meet in 1994.
Senior Michael Thomas turned in a season-best 7.74 to tally eight points for the Hogs with a second-place finish in the 60-meter hurdles. Thomas matched his career-best finish in the conference meet matching a second-place showing in the same event as a sophomore.
Junior Omar Brown posted a fourth-place finish in the 60-meter final to net the Razorbacks six more points. For Brown, it was only his second 60-meter race of the indoor season.
The Hogs tallied 15 points in the 200-meter dash. In addition to Gay’s 10-point showing, freshman Wallace Spearmon netted five points with a fourth-place finish. Spearmon ran 21.08 in his first conference final as a Razorback.
Junior Terry Gatson earned two points in the 400-meter final finishing seventh with a time of 46.91. Junior James Hatch (1:48.78) finished fifth in the 800-meter run final to gain another four points for the Hogs.
Arkansas scored 19 points in the mile run with a trio of top-five finishes. Mulvaney was nipped at the wire by Kentucky’s David Freeman (4:01.36), but finished second with a time of 4:01.94. Vazquez (4:03.38) and Taylor (4:03.64) finished third and fourth, respectively.
In addition to Cragg and Sandfort capturing first and second place in the 5,000, Arkansas collected five additional points when freshman Josh Harper (14:23.79) and sophomore Matt Gunn (14:24.56) finished sixth and seventh, respectively.
Senior P.J. Brown gave the Hogs a lift with a fourth-place finish in the pole vault. Brown cleared a personal best height of 17-2.75 to register five points for the Razorbacks’ cause. Arkansas freshman Greg Martin cleared 6-8.75, but finished just out of the points in ninth in the high jump.
McDonnell says it’s now time for his squad to forget the conference meet and turn its attention towards the NCAA Championships. Despite the second-place finish at the SEC meet, the Razorbacks will be the prohibitive favorite to capture their 39th national championship in two weeks at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville.
“We have to pick up the pieces and get ready for the national meet,” McDonnell said. “Our kids are disappointed to lose the way we did. Now we just have to move on and get ready for the national meet. It’s the big dance. That is what you aim for every year. We are looking real good, but we will have to keep it going. LSU will be a national championship caliber team and so will Florida. It’s not going to be easy, but I think we will be ready.”
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