March 15, 2003
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - In one of the greatest races of the 2003 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, Tennessee's Nicole Cook came within 7/100ths of a second from claiming the 800-meter title Saturday night at the Randall Tyson Track Center. The Lady Volunteer sophomore ran the best race of her stellar career, yet UCLA's Lena Nilsson had just a little more, holding off a valiant charge by the UT middle distance standout at the finish line by the narrowest of margins.
With the eight points supplied by Cook, Tennessee tied Mississippi State for 23rd in the team standings. That marks the school's best finish and highest point total since 1995. LSU claimed yet another team trophy, tallying 62 points to easily outdistance SEC rivals Florida and South Carolina, who both posted 44. Other league schools scoring included Auburn in seventh (29), Arkansas in 10th (22), Georgia in 26th (4) and Kentucky in 43rd (2).
Nilsson, who was edged at the tape by Cook on Friday night in the prelims, turned the tables in the finals. It wasn't by much, however, as her 2:05.13 readout was just enough to top Cook's 2:05.19 and prevent the second-year Big Orange performer from becoming Tennessee's first NCAA indoor champ since Patty Wiegand won the 3000m in 1991.
As it was, Cook became the Lady Vols' first top-three finisher in the 800m at NCAA Indoors since Kathi Harris was third in 1985. Additionally, she is UT's first indoor 800m scorer since Jasmin Jones placed fourth in 1991 and is Tennessee's most recent top-three NCAA indoor finisher since Sue Walton was the 200m runner-up in 1995.
"I'm extremely proud of Nicole and very happy for her," first-year Lady Vol Head Coach J.J. Clark said. "Nicole ran a very smart race and did a lot of things right with positioning. She ran two PRs this weekend and has really learned a lot at this meet.
"Having me as her coach this year has also been a factor for Nicole, because she has had to get used to my style and develop a trust in me. I am proud of the way she has learned to run from the start (of a race). That's why she has been able to improve tremendously and record personal bests this season. That's an accomplishment in itself, because her times last year were not too shabby."
Like Friday night, Cook again posted another strong start and surged to the lead at the 200-meter mark. About 70 meters later, however, LSU's Marian Burnett and Nilsson went around Cook. The Lady Vol followed right on the heels of the duo for a lap until a five-meter gap developed. As the bell sounded to signal the final trip around the track, Cook began to make a move to erase the deficit. She was able to run down and pass Burnett but ran out of real estate before catching the UCLA standout.
For the Petersburg, Va., native, the runner-up outcome earned her the fifth All-America certificate of her young career. Cook picked up national acclaim indoors and out in 2002 in both the 800m and 4x400m relay. Her NCAA 800 finishes as a freshman were ninth indoors (2:07.14) and eighth outdoors (2:06.51).
Despite the improved time, Cook remains at number four on Tennessee's all-time performers list. Ahead of her on that honor roll are 12-time All-American Delisa Walton at 2:02.4, 15-time honoree Joetta Clark at 2:03.84 and 11-time national award-winner Jones at 2:04.70. Clark believes Cook is ready to be considered a member of that distinguished club.
"She's definitely as good as the members in that group," Clark said. "She is working hard and zeroing in on the kinds of times those three ran. She has the ability to compete at that level or even better. We'll continue to work at it and take it one step at a time."
Cook advanced to the finals with the seventh-fastest reading of Friday night's prelims. Her 2:08.57 clocking was good for second in heat one behind the 2:08.48 reading of Florida's Kristina Bratton. Nilsson grabbed the eighth and final spot for the championship race by crossing the line just after Cook in 2:08:59 during heat one.
LSU's Marian Burnett, the fastest qualifier and the defending NCAA 800 champ, settled for third Saturday night in 2:06.43. Bratton, whom Clark coached during his days as an assistant coach at Florida, was seventh in 2:09.19.
With the wraps put on the indoor season, the Lady Vols will open the outdoor portion of the schedule on March 28-29 at the Raleigh Relays in Raleigh, N.C. Tennessee was originally slated to get its outdoor slate underway at the FSU Relays in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 21-22, but Clark opted for the week off from competition after the NCAA Indoor Championships.