Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Razorbacks lament lost championship opportunity
Arkansas' Taylor Werner leads the pack as she competes Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in the 3,000 meters during the Southeastern Conference Indoor Track and Field Championship at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — If not for the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Arkansas women's track & field coach Lance Harter thinks he could have been holding another national championship trophy Saturday won by his Razorbacks.
That’s when the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships were scheduled to conclude in Austin, Texas. The field would have included a Razorbacks team that was loaded with potential scorers and looking to win an outdoor title for the second consecutive year.
“A lot of experience and a lot of talent and tremendous depth,” Harter said last week when asked how to describe his outdoor team that never got to compete this year.
The NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships March 12 while the Razorbacks were in Albuquerque, N.M., preparing for the indoor championships that were scheduled to begin the next day.
“Indoors, we felt like we were a podium-level team,” Harter said. “We get yanked out of that arena and put on a plane and flown home. And then when we got home it was, ‘Oh, by the way, we don’t have an outdoor season, either.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
The Razorbacks won NCAA championships indoors, outdoors and in cross country during the 2019 calendar year — the third, fourth and fifth national championships under Harter — and the indoor meet in Albuquerque was to begin the team’s defense tour of those three titles in 2020.
The cross country team will have a chance to defend its title in November at the NCAA cross country meet in Stillwater, Okla., but the indoor and outdoor teams will have to wait two years for their shot to repeat.
“I’ve seen so many posts on social media lately that this would have been [a day] at the national championships,” said Taylor Werner, a senior distance runner who will be able to compete indoors and outdoors in 2021. “It’s definitely weird not being there.
“If I’m looking at the positives, technically we’re still undefeated, so that’s pretty cool. It’s definitely hard looking back at this was the weekend dreams were supposed to come true, but there’s also a lot of comfort knowing that everyone is going through this. It’s not just us at Arkansas.”
Werner, fellow distance runner Lauren Gregory and sprinter Kethlin Campbell redshirted for the Razorbacks during this year’s indoor season, but they were set to compete outdoors.
“Just those three could have tipped the scales in our favor outdoors,” Harter said. “[Pole vault coach] Bryan Compton just left my office and said, ‘Man, this is hard knowing that we could be in Austin and chasing another title.’”
The Razorbacks won the outdoor title last year with an exhilarating ending. Werner, who ran the 10,000 meters a day before in sweltering humidity, gutted out a second-place finish in the 5,000 to tie Arkansas with Southern Cal entering the final event of the meet.
During a tight 1,600 relay, a USC runner dropped the baton on the third leg. Arkansas finished the relay third to win the team championship.
“Cross country is fun, indoor is really fun, but outdoor is that season where you really get in good shape, and the pros start competing with you, and you get in these big meets where you get your [personal bests] from,” Werner said. “It’s kind of a bummer that all that time we worked for just got canceled.
“I try not to think about it too much because I tend to get deep in the depths of my own sorrows.”
The NCAA outdoor meet will move back to Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., next year. It was relocated to Austin for two years while the stadium at Oregon underwent a $200 million renovation.
While the cross country and indoor championship sites rotate, Oregon has a long-term agreement to host the outdoor meet.
“I think everybody is going to be super excited because that will be one of the first big meets in that arena because everything else has been tabled,” Harter said of the NCAA outdoor meet in 2021. “We’re going to bring a very formidable team there.”
The NCAA’s decision to restore a year of eligibility for spring sports athletes allows Arkansas to return its entire outdoor team that would have competed this weekend in Texas, plus add some new faces. Harter said he was appreciative of the financial support that allows the team to fund scholarships next year for athletes who were seniors this year.
Before the Razorbacks defend their outdoor title in Eugene, they will have a chance to defend their indoor title at Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville in March.
“I can’t wait,” said Werner, who can’t run during the cross country season because her eligibility expired in that sport. “If anything, everyone is going to be really antsy, and I think everyone is excited to get back to the track.
“I’m definitely looking forward to that one.”
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