By Jim O'Hara
NAIA Men's Outdoor Track and Field National Championship
May 24-26 • Marion, Ind.
MARION, Ind. – Even in the worst scenario he can conjure up, Shorter University men's track head coach Scott Byrd comes up with optimistic point totals.
That's how strong the Hawks are as the defending NAIA national champions take perhaps what may be an even better version of last year's squad to the 61st NAIA Men's Outdoor Track and Field National Championship that begins its three-day run today on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind.
"If things go bad for us we can score 73 points," said Byrd, who saw the 2011 Hawks claim the title by rolling up 66 points. "If we have a good day we can get 92 or more. I think we've got an opportunity to do something special."
The Hawks have already done something special, accomplishing the rare feat of sweeping both the indoor and outdoor national crowns a year ago.
But although the team fell short in its quest to keep the indoor title back in March, finishing second to Wayland Baptist, the Hawks' outdoor athletes not only have the skills to repeat, they also have the depth and the determination to do it.
"They responded well after finishing second at the indoor," Byrd said. "We've had a lot of them overcome injuries to get ready for this. The good thing is they're pretty relaxed. If certain things could happen and things shake out, we could score a lot of points. But no one in any sport – track, football, baseball or even chess – has won anything on paper.
"You just have to go out and run like you have all season, and if they do that we'll do well."
Despite the loss of some key players from last year's team – three of them won four individual national championships that produced 40 points alone – Shorter has come up with a lineup that can easily match and surpass that output.
Case in point: A deeper and more potent group of sprinters.
In the 100, an event won by former Hawk Travis Benton last year, Shorter will be putting four standouts in the blocks, all of them who run well below the 11-second mark with three of them taking the national track with times that rank them in the top 10 nationally.
Junior Kirk Wilson is ranked No. 4 in the 100 having been clocked at 10.31 seconds; junior All-Americans Allen Huntley (10.43) and Nigel Talton (10.57), who reached the finals in 2011 are ranked No. 6 and No. 8, respectively; and then there's sophomore Bradley Moon, who is listed top 10 having covered the distance in 10.73 seconds.
"All four of them," assistant head coach Rochelle Black, who works with the sprinters, said, "have been running faster than they've ever run."
When the sprint length is doubled to 200, Wilson will again head to the starting line and do so by himself as Shorter will be without the services sophomore Adika Smith, who was ranked No. 4 in the event but will miss the meet due to an injury. Not to worry, however, as Wilson is ranked No. 5 with a time of 20.98.
In the 400, Shorter has the runner who most national observers feel is the man to beat, and rightly so.
Junior All-American Randy Dameron, who finished sixth last year with a school record run, broke that mark this year posting a time of 46.85, good enough to make him the top-ranked NAIA competitor.
"He's already run the winning time that won it last year," Black said about Dameron, who will be joined by junior Malik Fair to give Shorter another double threat.
Just as they have poised themselves to aptly fill the absence of a national champion in the sprints, the Hawks have done the same thing for a void left by the departure of two other titleholders.
Although Shorter will not have an entry in the 400 hurdles – an injury has sidelined senior All-American Terence Scruggs, who was slated to fill the shoes of defending champ Nick Dodson – the Hawks have the weapons to provide the needed points in the other events that involve clearing obstacles.
In the 110 hurdles, sophomore Trebor Holmes in ranked No. 4 in the nation having stopped the clock in 14.33 seconds, and the news gets even better when it comes to the 3,000 steeplechase where juniors Daniel Sorenson and Oscar Ogwaro have emerged as the top two runners.
Both within seconds of achieving a qualifying time for the U.S. Olympic Trials, Sorenson is ranked No. 1 in the NAIA with a time of 8:50.48 while Ogwaro is No. 2 at 8:58.84.
Ogwaro is also focusing on helping the Hawks in the longer distances, where Shorter can pick up more points.
Although he is ranked No. 3 in the 1,500, he will bypass that event to not only concentrate on the steeplechase but on the 10,000, where he earned All-American honors last year with a third-place finish and has the third-best time this year with a 29:15.38.
Toeing the line for the 1,500 by himself will be junior Carlos Perez, who Byrd believes can add to the team's point total as he is ranked No. 10 in the event with a time of 3:51.67.
Three Hawks that, like Perez, will be Shorter's lone representatives in the field events are expected to make the most of their appearances.
The current holder of the school record in the long jump, Holmes will double his load at the nationals leaping into the pit where he is ranked No. 2 with a jump measuring 24 feet, 7 inches, and in the triple jump junior Sadrac Cherfils is ranked No. 10 having hit his mark for a season-best 48-6 effort.
The one Hawk who has the potential to break on to the national throw scene this week will be sophomore Robert Harvey, who has dominated the shot and discus in the Mid-South Conference the past two years and will be looking to make his mark in both events in Marion to help the team.
And working as a team is what clearly defines the Hawks who will team up in what may be Shorter's strength – the relays.
For the first time, Shorter will have foursomes entered in all three relays – 4x100, 4x400 and 4x800 – and all of the quartets are among the best in the country with two of them the best.
In the 4x100, Shorter's sprinters take the spotlight with Huntley, Moon, Talton and Wilson carrying the season's best time of 40.22 seconds, with Dameron, Fair and freshman Myguel Roberson standing by as alternates.
Byrd is particularly excited about what Shorter's 4x800 foursome has done and can do as the Hawks' squad of seniors Allen O'Neal, Eliud Ng'etich and Peter Limo, all whom are already NAIA All-Americans, have teamed up with Perez (Dameron is a solid alternate) to post the top time in the nation having been timed with a 7:40.50.
Rounding out the relay events is Shorter's 4x400 squad that is ranked No. 4 with a time of 3:12.74. Here the Hawks have the multiple options by matching up Dameron and Fair with Wilson, Roberson or freshman Cole Rice, with Ng'etich serving as an alternate.
"Scoring wise," Black said about what the relay teams could do, "Coach Byrd and I tend to be cautious when we look at it. But we feel we have a shot at winning all three and that means 30 points, and that alone makes you a top five team."
Black points out that, not surprisingly, the Hawks will find themselves in the hunt for the title with a familiar foe – Wayland Baptist.
"They match us in almost every event except in the field events," he said, "and that could mean the difference."
"We are deeper in the distances, middle distances, sprints and field events," Byrd said. "But we're really good certain areas.
"In the sprints, I think Kirk has a shot at winning both the 100 and 200, and we got stronger in the distances – the steeplechase, the 1,500 and 10,000," the coach said. "Then there are the three relays and we've never gone to the nationals entered in all three events."
All of that boils down to what has been the foundation of the Shorter track program – being a team first and foremost.
"We've always talked about going out there as a team," said Byrd. "If you go out there and do well individually, the team does well."