FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas men’s track program has enjoyed plenty of Southeastern Conference success under coach Chris Bucknam, winning six consecutive competitions dating back to the 2011 SEC Outdoor meet.
Bucknam and the Razorbacks would love to see the number climb to seven this week. But Bucknam also sounded a little cautious about the chances after an outdoor season affected by plenty of weather issues.
“We’d like to extend it, but we’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves,” Bucknam. “We have to get the job done and perform. The Oregon meet was a good test for us in regard to head to head competition. But other than that, we haven’t been tested. … We’re a little bit nervous in regard to the lighter schedule we’ve had.”
Arkansas — which has had one outdoor meet cancelled and another dampened by wet weather — is hoping it won’t be detrimental to its goal as the Razorbacks take aim at the 2013 SEC Championships in Columbia, Mo.
Both the men’s and women’s teams open the four-day meet with bragging rights after grabbing SEC Indoor titles earlier this winter. They’d like to sweep the SEC Outdoor meet as well and build momentum for the rest of championship season.
“I think that we have the footprint of a team that could challenge for the win,” Arkansas women’s coach Lance Harter said. “But it never gets any easier in the SEC.”
The men’s team is ranked No. 5 in the latest U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association rankings heading into the SEC Outdoors, trailing top-ranked Florida and No. 2 Texas A&M. But Bucknam still believes Arkansas — which is coming off an NCAA Indoor national championship as well — has enough depth and firepower to top both programs to win the program’s 18th SEC Outdoor title.
It will take a big performance in a conference that has added Texas A&M and Missouri since Arkansas’ dominant win in 2012. Bucknam said it won’t be easy.
“Those days are gone,” said Bucknam, whose team piled up 196 points and eight event titles last year. “This is a new meet. But I do feel like we’ve got the firepower to challenge for an SEC championship and the target is on our back.”
Bucknam said Arkansas will need big performances to help make up for events it will lose ground in like the javelin, hammer throw and relays. But Bucknam believes an “all hands on deck” approach can pay off for the Razorbacks.
“I feel like we’re in the driver’s seat,” Bucknam said. “But we still have to perform.”
Harter, meanwhile, said his sixth-ranked Razorbacks should be in a tight race with No. 2 Texas A&M, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 LSU and No. 10 Georgia. The Arkansas women’s team finished third at the 2012 SEC Outdoor Championships, but have had a strong year in cross country (second place) and SEC Indoor track (first place).
Arkansas’ success could hinge on how well two stars — Regina George and Sparkle McKnight — handle loaded schedules. Each sprinter will compete in four events for a team that last won an SEC Outdoor Championship in 2004.
“Their fitness is excellent,” Harter said. “They went to Penn and ran fast, very fast, for their respective counties. So I think as far as positive momentum, both mentally and physically, they both have it.”
The meet kicks off championship season for both squads.
The NCAA West Preliminary meet will be held May 23-25, while the NCAA Outdoor Championships are set for June 5-8. The conference crown is on the line this week, but Bucknam believes Arkansas’ performs could set the tone for the national meet.
“We’ll be able to answer that question a little bit better after this weekend in regards to how that translates to the national championships,” Bucknam said. “We do feel like if we stay healthy and fit, no unforeseen casualties with our top tier guys, we feel like we can contend for a national title as well. We feel like we’re in the mix.”