The track season just went into overdrive. It’s Championship time – NCAA’s with the Trials in a few weeks! The only thing more exciting is the Olympics. If this weekend’s NCAA’s was any indication, the summer of 2016 is going to be HOT and memorable.
Personally I’m not a fan of the current NCAA format – I said that last year. The Regional meets can’t even be called championships since there are NO finals – athletes just move en mass to the NCAA Semi Finals. Then the men and women are separated – alternating days between semis and finals. The Regional meets are definitely unexciting, and pretending that the championships are basically two separate meets is just wrong in my humble opinion.
That said, at the end of the day it’s about the competition. Great competition can make any meet a great meet – that’s why high school championships are exciting even though the kids are running, jumping and throwing at a fraction of their adult elite counterparts. So it was at these championships. The action, men’s and women’s, was as good as it gets – semis and finals. Meaning four straight days of high level track and field – in spite of the segregated format.
Both sexes, lost top level athletes early that would affect the eventual outcomes. On the men’s side, LSU’s Nethaneel Mitchell Blake was looking to lead both sprints and the 4×1, and LSU to victory. He looked on his way as he brought the 4×1 from mid pack to win by .01 over Houston – until he could be seen limping off after the finish. He could barely run in the 100 final, and there went LSU’s hopes. On the women’s side, Hannah Cunliffe was to lead Oregon to the promised land once again. She was the only collegian under 11.00 in the 100, and was the leader of their 4×1 that had the potential to win. A hamstring strain in the Regional meet seemed to slow her a bit in the 4×1 during the semis here. Then she never got going in her 100 semi, and there went Oregon’s national championships hopes – or did they?
So much for the back stories of the meet – or at least the important ones. The meets themselves – and I have to call them two separate meets – were as good as any I’ve seen. The finals started with that sizzling 4×1 as six squads finished between 38.42 & 38.72 with LSU winning on an outstanding anchor by Mitchell Blake. Just losing out was the University of Houston, coached by former WR holder Leroy Burrell and anchored by, his son Cameron! Houston hasn’t been a national power since the ’80’s when Leroy and Carl Lewis were running things in the sprints. They’ll be interesting to watch going forward.
This weekend’s sprints however, were supposed to be the Nethaneel Mitchell Blake show. Blake was a 10.09 performer going into the meet and a clear favorite in the deuce at 19.95 & 19.96w. That storming anchor leg took care of that. Side note, this is the price you pay for waiting until the end of the relay to run your best athlete. The strain of attempting to "catch the field" can often cost you in the end (my words of wisdom for the day). LSU’s loss was Arkansas’ gain – or should I say Jarrion Lawson’s gain. Lawson started his meet with a win in the long jump on semis day. Lawson dominated with his 26’8" victory. Then came back two days later to run the sprints. In one of the closest 100’s in recent memory, Lawson out leaned Christian Coleman in the closing strides, 10.22 to 10.23 with fifth place going in 10.26! He came back in the deuce to run with a bit more daylight 20.19 to 20.26, again over Coleman. The win gave Lawson a triple – 100, 200 & LJ – and had everyone comparing him to one Jesse Owens who accomplished the triple, plus a hurdle event, way back in 1936! Sweet.
Lawson’s heroics were not enough to boost Arkansas to the team title however. That accomplishment went to Quartermiler, Jumper U – otherwise known as the University of Florida. Florida has become the school that produces quartermilers and jumpers. If you don’t believe me take note that Olympic and World triple jump champion is Christian Taylor – from Florida. Will Claye medaled in both the triple jump and long jump in London – and he and Taylor are currently one, two in the world in the triple jump. Omar Craddock recently won the triple jump at the NCAA meet. And this year’s freshman, KeAndre Bates was runner up in the triple jump, and third in the long jump! Now how about that one lap? Well, once again they were under 39.00 in the 4×1 finishing 4th in 38.54 in that very HOT relay. They had THREE finalists in the open 400, with Arman Hall taking the title in 44.82. And they had two finalists in the 400 hurdles with Eric Futch (48.91) and TJ Holmes (49.31) going 1,2! The only other "400" in the meet was the 4×4 where they were a close second to LSU 3:00.69 to 3:01.12. Overall result, National Champions. Congrats to Coach Mike Holloway and the Gators!
Before moving to the women’s meet, I must mention the performance of the meet – and perhaps the event of the meet. That would be the 800 meters. Texas A&M freshman Donovan Brazier (1:45.98 indoors) had proven to be one of the best in the country, and was integral to any hopes the Aggies had of vying for a national title. Mississippi State senior Brandon McBride came into the meet having run 1:44.63 at the end of April. The stage was set for something special, and with a 50 second opening lap that promise was kept. Running with the grace that belies most veterans, Brazier outran McBride in the final 200 to win in a stunning 1:43.55! A collegiate record and American Junior Record. Easily the most outstanding performance of the meet. I’d love to see this kid make the Olympic team, but he may "settle" for competing at Junior Nationals and going to World Juniors. Either way his future is bright, because as scary as it sounds, I know he can run faster!
And then there were the women. Certainly not an afterthought, though separating them makes it seem that way. I mean, you get to watch all of the above, and then some, leave, and have to come back again wondering if they will keep our attention! Well they did that and then some. Though many of the best performances came in the field events – where television doesn’t pay much attention. There was a collegiate record in the shot put by Mississippi’s Raven Saunders (63’5"). And a collegiate and American Record in the triple jump by Georgia’s Kenturah Oji (47’8"). I would tell you more but I didn’t actually get to watch the competitions. I did get to watch the steeplechase where there was NO real competition, more like total domination by New Mexico’s Courtney Frerichs. Frerichs ran away from the competition early and made it a race against the clock – race she won as she crossed the line in 9:24.41 taking down the collegiate record of Jenny Barringer (now Simpson). A pretty outstanding feat.
Before that, the most exciting finish of the four days of the meet occurred when Marta Freitas (MsSt) lead the 1500 from wire to wire, only to nearly lose as she raised her arms in victory – not realizing that Elise Cranny (Stan) was charging down the homestretch forcing a photo finish as they crossed the line in unison. The result, Freitas 4:09.53, Cranny 4:09.54. The closest finish of the meet.
So what about the team title? Oregon was banking on Hannah Cunliffe to lead the way – can’t blame them, I would’ve. But Hannah went down on semifinal day. So what happened to Oregon, attempting to defend at home? First they reworked the 4×1, and still finished third at 42.91! Outstanding plus! As for missing Cunliffe, Arianna Washington reminded us, at least me, that she was a California sprint champion. She channeled her history and came up big winning BOTH the 100 and 200 in Cunliffe’s absence in 10.95w and 22.21. Actually after this meet she’s the top dog at Oregon, and seeing how the sprint crew does at the Trials is going to be interesting.
Oregon’s hopes were further bolstered by sophomore Raven Rogers’ dominating performance in the 800 as she repeated last year’s win.
Following Washington’s 200 win – which turned out to be a 1,2 finish for Oregon with Deajah Stevens running 22.25 – Alli Cash took 5th in the 5000, bringing Oregon to 2nd place in the team competition. Unfortunately Arkansas’ Dominique Scott WON the 5000, completing a 5K/10K double and leaving Arkansas two points ahead of Oregon. The problem for Oregon was they didn’t have a 4×4 in the final having dropped the baton in the semis – meet over. Arkansas did have a 4×4 squad taking second to win the meet over Oregon by 10 points – the first National title for the Arkansas women.
While Arkansas’ second place in the 4×4 topped off their title, Texas finished off with the win, courtesy of Courtney Okolo’s outstanding anchor. Okolo sat around 4th/5th early on her leg until she turned it on with about 150 meters to go running by the field to victory. It was a clone of her open win where she cruised down the back stretch then ran by everyone on the turn to win going away in 50.36. A very fine pair of quarters by Okolo.
Like I said at the start, this was one of the best NCAA Championships I’ve seen in quite some time. The question on my mind now is what condition will these young people be in come the Trials? With such outstanding performances, can they hold their peaks long enough to make the team – because I think several of them could truly help Team America. Time will tell. What they did in this meet, or dual meets, was outstanding!