June 14, 2003
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Tennessee's track and field squad finished the final day of the NCAA Outdoor Championships in seventh under a full moon Saturday night at Sacramento State's Hornet Stadium. During the meet's final stanza Gary Kikaya's fourth-place finish in the 400m dash and Karl Jennings' fifth-place effort in the 110m hurdles added nine more points to bump the final Vol total to 30 points. Both Kikaya and Jennings peaked to run their fastest times in the three rounds of the NCAA Championships in their respective finals.
Arkansas took its first NCAA outdoor title since 1999 [Stanford 2000, Tennessee 2001 and LSU 2002] with a distance-powered 59 points. Auburn nabbed runner-up honors with 50 points to keep the top-two spots in Commissioner Slive's family. Six of the top-10 teams belong to the SEC.
"Team-wise, our meet was a little disappointing but understandably so with some of the things that happened," head coach Bill Webb said. "We just had an up and down meet. There were three or four places where we could have scored considerably more points. I did like our effort. Kikaya, running in lane eight, ran a season best. Karl put up an excellent time in the hurdles. We finished seventh, and most teams would love to be there. But this is Tennessee and we're accustomed to higher, but our guys competed hard.
Running in the dreaded lane eight on the outside of the oval, Kikaya ran to fourth in a season-best 45.02, faster than his prelim effort of 45.37 and semifinal time of 45.25. In lane eight on an oval race, all the other competitors start behind you. Therefore, Kikaya went out hard but couldn't see how the rest of the field was responding. Three competitors caught him on the final stretch, including third-place Mitch Potter of Minnesota who took a spill at the tape.
Kikaya's five points for finishing fourth pushed the Vols up to 30 total
points and moved them into a final-day high of tied for second. However,
scoring the remaining events dropped the Tennesseans back down as they didn't
have any more scoring chances. While he won the NCAA 400m title last year,
Kikaya actually placed better than his ninth-best qualifying time entering the
meet. Kikaya hangs up his orange uniform with two NCAA 400m titles to his
credit--one indoor and one outdoor--and the previously untouchable school 400m
dash record of Darwin Bond now bearing his name [44.53].
"It's tough [running in lane eight], but I still have to run my own race," Kikaya said. "You don't have anyone up in front of you to judge [your progress] or pace you. I was running blind as a bat. I had to trust my instincts. I'm really pleased with my 45.02 fourth place. One month off after my injury really affected me. I'm glad it's starting to come back to me.
Just one lane away from the grandstand, 110m hurdler Jennings took fifth in 13.65 in lane eight. Jennings corrected some technique items from his prelim time of 13.87 and semifinal time of 13.85. Jennings stood sixth or seventh at the third hurdle but accelerated with a strong close on the last 50 meters. Jennings earned his first outdoor All-America certificate and second overall as he called it a collegiate career.
"I think I made some adjustments," Jennings said. "I knew what I was in for in lane eight. I think I did it justice. I ran hard and carried some changes over from the practice field to the track. I tried to get out as fast as I could and work on my technique. I just tried to put everything I knew into this race. Great competition leads to great things.
Tennessee's NCAA experience was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes perplexing and sometimes frustrating. The underdog Vols journeyed to the land of the California Gold Rush nearly a week ago with glittering hopes of hitting a new mother lode mined the hard way on the lanes and in the field of Hornet Stadium. Despite being stripped of national-caliber talent from the 2002 NCAA indoor championship team and NCAA runner-up outdoor team, the Vols hoped to slip in and nab another golden NCAA trophy while the favorites found their pre-meet claims worthless.
Tennessee did strike gold Thursday with senior captain Stephen Harris' decathlon triumph and hit a vein of silver in the 4x100m relay courtesy of Jabari Greer, Kikaya, Sean Lambert and Jonathan Wade. Lambert's surprise 100m dash sixth-place finish Friday and Kikaya's and Jennings' fourth and fifth-place Saturday finishes, respectively, helped, but the Tennesseans never found the boom they wanted. Tennessee ran its updated All-America total to seven courtesy of Harris, the 4x100m relay, Kikaya, Jennings and Lambert, plus Leigh Smith and Rocky Danners making the cut as one of the top-eight Americans.
Before the meet began Webb said that the winning team would need luck, have to qualify well for finals and step up when the finals rolled around. For the most part the Volunteer finalists did step up their games in the finals. Problem is there just weren't enough orange-bedecked bodies claiming lanes in the finals. Additionally, in a meet where finding extra points can be as tough as finding the proverbial mother lode was for California's historic 49ers, two Vols with NCAA-leading times in Marc Sylvester (800m) and Greer (110m hurdles) came up empty in the points race because of illness and bad fortune. Meanwhile, illness also claimed a scoring chance in decathlete Kevin Thompson.
It became apparent that the intangible yet necessary asset of luck would not visit the Vols this time around. Lady Luck was a frequent visitor at the 2001 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., as the Vols charged from a darkhorse position to claim the big trophy. Luck smiled on Tennessee at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., where the favored Vols came out on top in indoor track's toughest venue. Luck was harder to find last June at the NCAA Championships when the favored Vols took second. This week it seems Lady Luck never got on the plane in Knoxville. Yet Tennessee has benefited from good fortune often in the past and the law of averages dictates everyone must pay the piper.
The finish was Tennessee's lowest since the 2000 NCAA Outdoor meet at Duke in Durham, N.C., where the Vols placed 15th with 17 points. That meet saw Harris and Danners in their inaugural NCAA Championship. Little did they know that the Vols would claim the NCAA title the next year.
While several Vols didn't put together the meet they wanted for various reasons, there can be no debate about the career accomplishments of the 2003 senior class. That Tennessee's roster will look lonely without them stands as a rock-solid fact. The 2003 seniors have rewritten Tennessee's all-time top-10 lists in their respective events and presided over the program's renaissance, as an NCAA outdoor, NCAA indoor and two SEC outdoor titles will attest.
Their departure makes the Tennessee coaching staff's recruiting efforts doubly important. At the next NCAA Championships, Tennessee will sorely miss senior NCAA champions Kikaya and Harris and fellow senior All-Americas Rocky Danners, Karl Jennings, Dwayne Bell Jr. and Kevin Thompson. Also, while barely missing All-America acclaim, senior Patrick Gildea will be missed as Tennessee's top 10,000m runner since the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, there's at least a chance sophomore hurdler and NCAA champion Greer may have run his last track meet as a Vol as his senior football season beckons with a possible NFL career on the horizon.
Greer, Harris, Leigh Smith and Marc Sylvester will remain in the Golden State with a robust group of former Vols for USA Nationals next week. Other Vols like Kikaya and Jennings will try their hand in international competition, Kikaya for the Congo and Jennings for Canada where he grew up before moving to New Jersey. The remaining Vols call it a season.
The NCAA Outdoor Championships will be televised by CBS June 21 at 4 p.m. ET according to network production personnel.