Tuesday, May 24, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Weeks twins face tough Preliminary

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE — The NCAA West Outdoor Track and Field Preliminary meet, the meet that Division 1 coaches loathe, has an additional cause to be disliked.

Rain is forecast for the entire Thursday through Saturday that the meet operates in Lawrence, Kan. The NCAA East Outdoor Preliminary is Thursday through Saturday in Jacksonville Fla., and both act as gateways to the NCAA Outdoor Championships June 8-11 in Eugene, Ore.

Each meet starts with the 48 top entrants in each event and through competition concludes with a top 12 in each regional clashing as 24 in each event at the NCAA Outdoor.

The formula is the same in both preliminaries, but it appears the conditions won’t be for Lawrence and Jacksonville.

Rain and rain delays can prove an unfair disadvantage in performance, particularly in highly technical events like the pole vault that includes four Razorbacks women. Three of the four, including freshman NCAA Indoor champion and All-American Lexi Weeks, her twin sister, All-American Tori Weeks, and Ariel Voskamp – are all from Cabot.

“The way it looks, we ought to call it the Thunder and Lightning Invitational,” UA women’s coach Lance Harter said. “It just makes you test your kids farther than you need to. Obviously you want to get through this as unscathed as possible, as healthy as possible so we can go on to the National meet and truly lay it on the line. If we are running races at midnight in Lawrence because Mother Nature calls, there is nothing you can do about it.”

Even when you have a pair like the Weeks sisters, who are ranked first and fourth in their event, they’re vulnerable to be knocked off by others ranked in the 40s because the conditions can vary so much.

“That’s the scariest event,” Harter said of when bad weather hits. “A 6-hour pole vault session with the chance of weather changing is quite substantial.”

Arkansas men’s coach Chris Bucknam also has long loathed this meet but vows to say little about that now because like Harter, he knows their SEC triple crown teams, both won the SEC Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor titles this 2015-2016 academic years, and Harter’s Outdoor Razorbacks nationally rank No. 1 and Bucknam’s No. 5, can only compete full fledged for a NCAA Outdoor Championship if they advance those they project to advance through Lawrence and maybe then some.

“I don’t have anything else to say other than that from the very inception it was problematic,” Bucknam said of the Regional meets redundancies and hardships, including running the 10,000 meters so close to the NCAA Outdoor 10,000. “They have changed rules during it. It used to be four regionals, now it’s two regions. The 10K had an exception and rightfully so but somehow somebody got in there and decided the 10K ought to be included but not the decathlon. To me it’s fraught with agendas from different people on the committee. It’s unfortunate, but we have to get through it.”

Bucknam takes 31 qualifiers in 41 events to Lawrence after being limited by SEC rules to a 30-man roster at the SEC Outdoor in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Since a 12th place in Lawrence is as good as a first advancing to Eugene, winning isn’t this week’s primary objective, though Bucknam and Harter say their elite athletes’ approach must somehow remain focused to win rather than coast.

“We instruct them,” Bucknam said. “Don’t get coy. Don’t get cute. Treat it like a final. You can’t score points sitting at home. You have to treat it like a final. Worry about the rest and recover after that which will be a good thing if we can.”

Among Bucknam’s 31 and Harter’s 23 are some athletes not likely to advance by ranked performances thus far.

“The plus side is that young group gets the chance to compete and have one more chance for success,” Bucknam said. “So that’s the silver lining, I guess.”

A major drawback concerns sprinter Marqueze Washington, ranked third and ninth in the 200 and 100-meter dashes and integral on the Razorbacks’ second and 11th ranked 4x100 and 4x400 relays, must run in Lawrence to advance to Eugene rather than rest his hamstring injured during the SEC meet.

“Marqueze is getting better,” Bucknam said with fingers crossed. “Hopefully we are at full strength.”

Razorbacks women Dominique Scott, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, Payton Stumbaugh, 100-meter hurdles, and Lexi Weeks, pole vault, rank No. 1 in the West for their events with Taylor Ellis-Watson, 400-meter dash, and Jessica Kamilos, 3,000-meter steeplechase, both No. 2.

For Bucknam’s men, NCAA Indoor champion Clive Pullen rates No. 1 in the triple jump and NCAA Indoor champion Jarrion Lawson rates No. 2 in the long jump while Andrew Ronoh, 10,000 meters, and the 4x100 relay rate No. 2.