Editor’s Note: “In The Blocks” will appear each Thursday on the SEC Digital Network during the collegiate track and field season.
By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Collegiate track and field season is upon us, although it’s not like it ever really leaves us for long.
It should come as no surprise that the teams of the Southeastern Conference are among the best in the nation this season, as they are annually. Currently, 14 SEC squads – seven men’s and seven women’s – are ranked among the nation’s top 25 in the latest poll of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. That is a number that both collectively and individually by gender leads all Division I conferences nationally.
On the men’s side of things, teams from the SEC hold the nation’s top-three spots, led by No. 1 Arkansas, and five teams are among the top-10 nationally. On the women’s side, four teams rank within the nation’s top seven, led by No. 4 Texas A&M, in its first year as a member of the SEC.
This past weekend was a great one for track and field competition in the SEC, highlighted by the Texas A&M Triangular, featuring Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M. This Friday and Saturday, Arkansas will play host to the Razorback Team Invitational, which will also feature league teams Florida, Georgia and LSU. It will be a preview of the upcoming SEC Championships, not only because it features the majority of the leading contenders, but also for the fact that it takes place at the Randal Tyson Track Center, home of the 2013 SEC Indoor Championships.
We are a little less than a month out from the annual league indoor championships, which will take place Feb. 22-24, and the teams are working through the opening few weeks of the season before unleashing their athletes full speed in time for championship competition.
Let’s take a look at some of the things going on in SEC track and field this week.
It was a first for the SEC on Monday when Texas A&M sprinter Deon Lendore, a sophomore, was named the USTFCCCA’s National Men’s Athlete of the Week, becoming the first athlete in league history to earn the newly minted honor.
Lendore’s recognition was well deserved, as he raced to the fastest 400 meters in the world this season with a time of 45.91. Not only was his time impressive but it was even more notable that it came so early in the season. His effort was the fourth-best all-time in the world in the month of January.
The well-deserved honor that Lendore received is a new one. Another creative, innovative and visionary idea from Tom Lewis, the USTFCCCA’s Director of Communications, who has worked tirelessly to advocate the sport of collegiate track and field since his arrival in the organization’s New Orleans-based office.
Lewis had previously been a media relations contact at the University of Missouri for the sports of volleyball and track and field and tells me he was impressed with the work of the American Volleyball Coaches Association and former Communications Director Bill Kaufmann, who worked to promote the sport, including the use of a weekly National Player of the Week honor.
Here’s what’s unique about the USTFCCCA honor and I really like this approach. The general public – YOU! – can be involved in the nomination process. Unlike most awards which are only nominated by media relations contacts or coaches, these weekly honors can be nominated by anyone – even student-athletes themselves - at the following link: https://ustfccca.site-ym.com/?naownoms.
“It’s my feeling that the more we involve the public, the more curious they may become about the sport, gaining some perspective and ownership will keep them interested for a long time to come,” Lewis said. “There are many things out there exciting about track and field other than marks, times and scores. The competition itself needs to be a focus.”
As with SEC Athlete of the Week honors, the selection process includes a variety of factors, none of which weigh more than any of the others. In addition to the traditional, marks and times being considered, head-to-head competition will be heavily measured, as well as a continued pattern of improvement and impressive performances.
This is a great addition for the growth of the sport and I encourage you to nominate athletes you feel are worthy of recognition each week at the link above.
How about Ole Miss’ Ricky Robertson?
He’s an exceptional athlete who continues to improve and impress in the high jump. Robertson is a six-time All-American and a five-time SEC Champion in that event. In fact, he will be going for his fourth consecutive SEC indoor high jump championship this February.
This past weekend at the Auburn Indoor Invitational, Robertson proved that he is more than just a talented high jumper and, for that, he was named the SEC Men’s Field Athlete of the Week.
Robertson took the day off from his primary event to focus on the triple jump.
That resulted in a nation-leading mark of 52-8.25 on his first attempt, which was 6.5 inches farther than the next closest this year, which has been recorded by Arizona State’s Chris Benard. It also moves Robertson into third place in Ole Miss school history in the indoor triple jump.
Robertson leads the SEC in both the triple jump and the high jump (7-2.50) this season and – get this – he is also tied for 25th nationally in the long jump.
There are a lot of athletes who have seen national-level success in both the triple jump and long jump, but very few who can excel in both vertical and horizontal leaps.
As good as Robertson has been over his first three years at Ole Miss, I think there are even greater things to come for him in his final collegiate season and beyond. It would be especially fun to see him succeed at the highest level in multiple events, if that transpires beyond this past weekend.
As for the high jump, the only person ever to win four consecutive SEC Indoor crowns in the event is former Arkansas standout Kenny Evans, who went on to become a member of Team USA at the 2000 Olympic Games. If Robertson can pull off the feat at the SEC Indoor Championships, that would be some pretty elite company.
• What a group of women’s runners we have this year in the SEC – both in the sprints and distance events. In fact, in two weeks of the SEC Athlete of the Week honors so far this season, both Women’s Runner of the Week awards have been split honors. In the first weekend of the season, distance runners Cally Macumber (Kentucky) and Cory McGee (Florida) shared the honors after impressive performances. This past week, Arkansas sprinter Regina George turned in two national-leading times and competed in three events. That would have been enough to earn her the sole honor in almost any other week. But last weekend, LSU standout and 2012 The Bowerman winner Kimberlyn Duncan ran the world’s fastest time at 200 meters.
• Cale Wallace from Arkansas has been remarkable as a freshman. Often praised publically by coach Chris Bucknam during the cross country season, Wallace has earned back-to-back SEC Men’s Freshman of the Week honors indoors. Two weeks ago, he recorded the top SEC time in the mile (4:08.63). This past week, he won the men’s 3,000-meter run at the highly competitive Texas A&M Triangular in a time of 8:21.27, which goes down as the top freshman time in the SEC this season.
• Is it Pole Vault U for the Arkansas women? This column isn’t long enough to list all of the accomplishments of former Razorback pole vaulter Tina Sutej, the Slovenian National Record-Holder, a multi-time SEC Champion and SEC record-holder, a Bowerman finalist and an NCAA Champion. But in this, the very season after Sutej’s final collegiate competition, Arkansas junior Sandi Morris has turned in the nation’s top mark in the pole vault with a clearance of 4.31m/14-1.75 to win the event at the Texas A&M Triangular last weekend. She was the only performer in the nation to eclipse 14 feet last weekend and one of only two nationally to do so this season.
Until next time.