May 31, 2003
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Seventh-place Tennessee didn't bring home the NCAA Mideast Regional team trophy on this shivering, windswept Saturday night at Ohio State, but that was never part of the Volunteer blueprint anyway. According to the Tennessee coaching staff's strategy, the main purpose of the meet was not to worry about nabbing the team trophy, but to fill as many plane seats for the NCAA Championships as possible. For the most part, Tennessee head coach Bill Webb and the Volunteer contingent could claim mission accomplished as the inaugural NCAA Mideast Regional slipped into the history books on a cold and wickedly windy night at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
Tennessee directly qualified six promising athletes for the upcoming NCAA Championships with top-five regional finishes Saturday. Locking up NCAA slots were 400m man Gary Kikaya, 100m man Sean Lambert, 800m man Marc Sylvester, the 4x100m relay, javelin thrower Leigh Smith and 110m hurdler Jabari Greer. The Vols could add more qualifiers when the NCAA committee makes its final at-large bids late Monday night. Decathletes Stephen Harris and Kevin Thompson are already in the NCAAs with previous automatic qualifiers. Likewise, Patrick Gildea's 10,000m provisional time from earlier in the season will probably get him in the show, as well.
SEC champion Arkansas won the team title with 73 points, five points ahead of runner-up Auburn's 68-point total. The Vols clocked in at seventh with 36 points. Six of the top 10 teams belong to the SEC.
"One way or another the idea was to get your guys to nationals, and I think
we got everybody in we could," Webb said. "In terms of adding somebody, the
surprise of the day was Sean Lambert getting third in the 100m. He ran a
great competitive race when it counted. We didn't put an emphasis on placing
and finish here as opposed to qualifying for nationals. On the whole, I feel
good about it.
Since the end of the SEC Outdoors, the Tennessee mindset has been focused squarely on the NCAA Championships in Sacramento, Calif., in two weeks. In essence, the Mideast Regional was just a means to an end--and the end has a bigger trophy attached to it in Sacramento. So it came down to Saturday. More than 1,100 men's Mideast Region track and field competitors from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Michigan descended onto Ohio State's Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for the showdown for an NCAA Championships berth. Conditions were beyond troublesome with the themometer topping out in the mid 50s and a 23 mph wind howling consistently from the north. While it stayed dry, conditions were so bad that the pole vault was moved across campus to the indoor facility, which necessitated several tough back and forth transits for Webb.
Kikaya led the Vol qualifying parade by running to runner-up honors with a 46.15 time, easily locking up a ticket for nationals. The strongest portion of Kikaya's race came between the 150m and 300m section when he laid down the throttle. Sensing his slot at nationals was secure with a top-five finish, Kikaya put it on cruise control.
"As soon as I knew I was in the top five I didn't feel the need to push it," Kikaya said. "The most important thing is that I'm on my way to defend my [NCAA 400m] title. In two weeks I'll be ready. We'll be in California, so it will be a good environment. I feel confident.
Perhaps the most gutsy effort of the meet belonged to Lambert in the 100m dash. After a hit and miss season, Lambert found his form when it counted with an overachieving third-place performance in 10.24w with a gale at his back. Lambert entered the race with the eighth-fastest time in the region.
"I got off to a slower start than usual," Lambert said. "This time I felt I knew what I was doing. Since I didn't have a good meet at SECs, I was very focused. I knew it was do or die time. I knew I had to run to get in. I had a good conversation with my coach [Vince Anderson] which allowed me to execute better.
Meanwhile, Sylvester got his expected qualifier in the 800m run with a third-place finish in a pedestrian 1:50.02. Sylvester uncharacteristically jumped out to lead most of the way to ensure he'd be in the qualifying top five. When he was comfortably in that qualifying mix, he cut off the jets to take third with a leg on the 4x400m relay in his near future.
Also, Tennessee's cobbled-together 4x100m relay gritted its way to a third-place, 40.37 finish and a lane at the NCAAs. Jabari Greer, Robert Boulware, Lambert and Dwayne Bell Jr. improved their stickwork from Friday's prelim effort. In what is thought to be the first time in school history, Tennessee broke out its all white body suits for both the 4x100m and 4x400m relays. The Vols' 4x100m 'white out' must have worked as the quartet qualified without the services of Jonathan Wade and Gary Kikaya. The rest of the Vols in other events donned traditional Tennessee orange.
Meanwhile, Smith is the only field events competitor who locked up an NCAA spot at the regionals. Smith's fourth-place, 221-10 didn't quite match his SEC title-winning throw from two weeks ago, but was good enough for a ticket for nationals with his throw through the turbulent Ohio skies.
In the 110m hurdles, Greer qualified with the last spot in fifth. Greer's wind-aided 13.69w still stands as a good time, but didn't match up to his 13.54 stadium record in the prelims Friday. While his race wasn't as polished as he'd have liked, Greer owns a lane for the NCAA meet.
In the pole vault, which was moved indoors because of poor conditions, Rocky Danners took eighth in his first jump since he hobbled to second at the SECs two weeks ago. Danners cleared 16-11. His NCAA fate rests in the hands of the committee as he awaits a possible at-large berth with an earlier better clearance. Meanwhile, Chandler Rice tied for 19th in the massive vault field with a 15-7.25 clearance. After his lifetime-best leap at SECs two weeks ago, Jeff Trembley no heighted to close his freshman campaign.
Tennessee's secondary 4x400m relay team took ninth in 3:14.09. Bell, Lambert, Sylvester and Stephen Harris passed the baton for the Vols.
After enjoying a career-best season, Rondell Mershon suffered a bout with the injury bug in the triple jump. His first jump of 50-1.75w placed 16th before Mershon had to foul his second jump and pass on his third jump because of a minor injury.
In the steeplechase, Tim Kelly took 28th in 9:32.89. He got off to a good start, actually leading most of the first two laps. However, he fell to the back of the pack over the next two laps. He had a better last 1,000m after passing two runners.
Tennessee enjoyed some special additions to its cheering section. Lou Schneider, former school mile run record holder, 1948 team captain and 1951 head coach, cheered on the Vols from his seat at Jesse Owens Stadium. Meanwhile, Webb wasn't the only current Vol head coach in attendance Saturday. John Trembley, Tennessee's swimming mentor, also was on hand to cheer on the Vols, in particular his son Jeff who competed in the pole vault.
Tennessee knows more about its travel roster for nationals after the regionals concluded. However, the final roster will be released Tuesday after the committee's decisions become final late Monday night. In the meantime, 110m hurdler Karl Jennings, vaulter Rocky Danners and 200m man Jonathan Wade will be sweating out the process until then. The NCAA Championships loom large June 11-14 in Sacramento, Calif.