Outdoor track is different animal


LITTLE ROCK — Trick question. What two teams that scored a total of 30 points in the NCAA Indoor meet are among the primary reasons Arkansas’ winning track team will have a difficult time doubling up at the outdoor competition in a couple of weeks.

A hint — Texas A&M, a non-threatening fourth in Fayetteville in March with 30 points, is half the answer. A no-show for the Indoor, USC is part two.

With the Aggies, it’s about the way the team is constructed. The expertise of their athletes — particularly sprinters and guys who throw objects shaped like Frisbees and spears — meshes better with the events that make up the outdoor meet than it does with the version held under a roof on a severely banked oval.

USC is not unique among Pac-12 schools. Other than the Oregon women, most of the track programs in that league don’t take the indoor season seriously. But, outdoors, the Trojans have at least two runners who can win events in which Arkansas harvested points at the SEC Outdoor meet.

At the indoor championship, Arkansas racked up 74 points and won its first NCAA title under Chris Bucknam, who replaced legendary John McDonnell five years ago. Runner-up Florida scored 59.

Remember when McDonnell’s Razorbacks began a string of 12 straight NCAA Indoor titiles in 1984? It was 1992 before the Razorbacks broke through outdoors because McDonnell’s teams were loaded with distance runners and jumpers and, outdoors, there are more opportunities for sprinters.

In fact, outdoor track vs. the indoor variety is a whole new ball game. For example, the distance medley relay is deleted from the competition, replaced outdoors by the 4x100 relay. The discsus and javelin are also outdoor-only events and A&M is competitive in both.

Barely two weeks prior to the outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore., A&M is John Auka’s pick to win. Auka, who has done form charts on outdoor competititon for Track & Field News for 20 years, selected Arkansas to win indoors. Starting this week, he had Florida, Arkansas, and Oregon in a virtual tie for second with around 50 points each and USC scoring in the low 30s.

On the surface, Arkansas finishing behind the Aggies and the Gators makes little sense in light of the Razorbacks recent performance at the SEC Outdoor championship. There, Arkansas finished almost 30 points ahead of Florida and almost 35 ahead of A&M.

Arkansas did it with several firsts that Auka does not believe will translate to the national stage. For example, Leoman Momoh won the 800 meters, Patrick Rono captured the 1,500, Kemoy Campbell won the 5,000, and Caleb Cross prevailed in the 400 meter hurdles. On Auka’s form chart, none are favored to win in Eugene and only Campbell is projected among the top three.

On the other hand, he believes A&M’s best, particularly a steeplechase runner, a hurdler, a javelin thrower, and two relay teams, are of such quality that they can prevail in the NCAA. On the NCAA website, Florida is identified as the No. 1 team because the Gators have 13 athletes ranked in the top 10 in their event.

USC’s impact on Arkansas is exemplified in the 400 meter hurdles and the 400 meters. Cross earned 10 points for his victory and teammate Akheem Gauntlett picked up eight more for a second in the 400. Auka’s form chart has USC runners winning both events and Cross and Gauntlett each finishing sixth.

First things first. Arkansas sent 25 individuals and two relay teams to the NCAA West Preliminary that begins today in Austin. A&M will also be there, with 24 individuals and the relay teams. Florida is competing in the East Preliminary in Greensboro, N.C.

Like the other contenders, the Razorbacks cannot afford any slip-ups by their best, such as pole vaulter Andrew Irwin and triple jumper-long jumper Tarik Batchelor.

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.