FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas distance runner Kemoy Campbell went to sleep disappointed Friday night, wondering if his mistake in the distance medley relay would prove costly in the Razorbacks’ push for the NCAA Indoor championship.
The Jamaican took solace in the fact there was one more opportunity to make it up to his teammates with Saturday’s 3,000-meter run. Campbell found the motivation to make it count, too, when Arkansas coach Chris Bucknam slipped back into the preparation room to encourage him just before he stepped onto the track.
“I said, ‘Dude, we just need a couple points,’” Bucknam said. “He took it to heart and got us eight. Coming back from fighting adversity is what it’s all about.”
Campbell secured the Arkansas track program’s first NCAA indoor championship since 2006 — and the program’s first national title of any kind under Bucknam — with his second-place finish in the 3,000 in the Randal Tyson Track Center.
He was only part of the 3,000 field because two others qualifiers couldn’t compete, but scored eight points in a run (7:46.95) that put Arkansas over the top Saturday. Then the Razorbacks put an exclamation point on the weekend by turning in the indoor collegiate record run in the 4x400-meter relay (3:03.50).
It triggered a celebration on the track the Razorbacks haven’t enjoyed during a national championship meet in some time. It was one Bucknam was thrilled to finally experience after replacing legendary coach John McDonnell five years ago.
“I just wanted to bring a national championship back to our alums,” Bucknam said. “Coach Mac and our alums. And I hope they’re pleased with how we got the job done and I hope they’re happy for us because we worked hard for it. It was one of our top priorities: Make our proud program feel good about where we’re at (Saturday).”
Arkansas entered the meet ranked No. 1 in the country and qualified an NCAA-best 19 athletes in 13 events. The depth made the Razorbacks the favorite in what was regarded as a two-team race with Florida, which had won three straight crowns.
Arkansas followed through behind the strength of three event titles.
It began Friday, when Andrew Irwin won the pole vault and continued with Kevin Lazas’ championship in the heptathlon. The 4x400 team of Marek Niit, Neil Braddy, Caleb Cross and Akheem Gauntlett pushed Arkansas’ point total to 74 after the final event, beating the Gators by 15.
“When we were warming up everybody was like, ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to finish,’” Gauntlett said of the collegiate record run. “Then we heard we won it (the title). We were like we can’t take the foot off the gas. It’s not over.”
But Bucknam credited the all-around performance for winning his first title.
Some examples: Arkansas picked up 11 points in the long jump (Raymond Higgs and Jarrion Lawson) on Friday and five in the 800 (Tomas Squella and Patrick Rono) Saturday. The Razorbacks also secured six points in the triple jump with a third-place finish by Tarik Batchelor and seven in the 200 (Gauntlett and Niit)
Campbell’s points proved to be the biggest. He bounced back from Friday’s frustrations, when a mishap with the baton cost Arkansas a scoring chance in the distance medley relay. Campbell thought about it all night and wanted to respond.
“I went back (Friday) night to the drawing board and came back (Saturday) with a vengeance for my team,” Campbell said. “It turned out really well.”
Bucknam was on the back side of the track and immediately hugged an assistant coach after Campbell’s finish. The Razorbacks knew at that point they had taken an 13-point lead, which was insurmountable with just one event left.
So the celebration continued through the record run in the 4x400 and the trophy presentation. Bucknam embraced coaches, athletes and supporters of the program.
It was a long time coming for a program waiting to continue its winning ways after McDonnell led the program to 40 national championships in his career.
“I just told the guys all we do is need to stay in the shadow and you’re going to tow us to big performances,” said Arkansas women’s coach Lance Harter, whose team also finished fourth at the NCAA Indoor meet. “To break that barrier of the coach McDonnell era, that’s really special. I’m really proud of the athletes and the staff.”
McDonnell was there to see it happen, too. He joined the team on the infield during the post-meet festivities, soaking in Arkansas’ 41st national championship.
“This is nice,” McDonnell said. “We needed another flag up there.”