Men’s track aims extend conference title streak at championship
Dominant. There is no better word to describe the men’s track & field team at the conference level. Since Leroy Burrell took over as head coach in 1999, the men have won 14 indoor conference titles in both the Conference-USA and the American Athletic Conference.
On Friday, the men will start their quest in Birmingham, Alabama to win a fourth straight AAC Indoor conference title It would be the third time in school history they have done so – they did it twice from 1997-2000 and 2007-2011. Although the athletes have put pressure on themselves to win that fourth straight indoor title, Burrell’s message to them has not changed, even in his 20th season as head coach.
“One of our core themes is be your best when it matters most,” Burrell said. “They’ve excelled and distinguished themselves at this (point) in the season. My message to them is keep doing what you’re doing. I think we have some of the most talented guys in the conference, so what we need to do is just handle the things we can handle.”
Continuing the dominance
The men already made history last year by winning their third-straight indoor title for the fourth time in school history and setting the conference record for points scored at the championship: 174.
Even with the absence of graduate sprinter Cameron Burrell and junior jumper Trumaine Jefferson, champions in the 200m and long jump respectively, the team has been running the times and hitting the marks that are reason to believe it can win that fourth consecutive title.
The Cougars own the top times in six different events, and 13 athletes own top five times in eight events. Senior sprinter Elijah Hall, who did not run at last year’s meet due to an injury, has been at the front of the pack for the men all season long. Hall owns top times in both the 60m (6.58s) and 200m (20.51s) and is the only sprinter with top five times in both events.
“It’s been a lot of trials and tribulations that I’ve been through, but I’ve been ready for this moment for a long time,” Hall said. “Staying healthy was the key and so far so good. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to do what we have to do. We’re going to make some noise.”
Last year’s 60m final was the greatest display of the team’s dominance at the meet. Six of the eight lanes belonged to a member of the track & field team. Cameron Burrell and junior Mario Burke were separated by thousandths of a second as Burke took the title.
The talk on the team is that they are aiming to have all eight spots filled this year.
Some individuals to keep an eye on are those who did not compete at conference last year: junior thrower Felipe Valencia and junior sprinter Kahmari Montgomery.
Valencia was redshirted last year to give him a full year to focus on training and improve his mark in the shot put. He and senior Cameron Cornelius have won every indoor shot put title since the conference’s founding in 2014. Valencia currently owns the top mark at 18.49m.
Montgomery, a transfer from the Missouri Tigers, has been influential in both the 400m and 4x400m relay. A former SEC champion and NCAA qualifier, Montgomery has been climbing his way toward the school 400m record in consecutive races and has earned a top conference mark (46.00s) in the process.
“It makes me even hungrier to know I’m just that close to making the school record,” Montgomery said. “I know that eventually I’ll be able to get to that point, and when I do I’ll just keep breaking it and breaking it until I can’t anymore.”
The missing link
The team’s success in the 4x400m relay is by far the biggest difference from the men in year’s past. The men have broken the school record in the event twice this season, the current time of 3:04.18 being set by junior Amere Lattin, Hall, Burke and Montgomery at the Tyson Invitational on Feb. 9.
Last year, the men were able to be competitive in the 4×4 relay, but this year they have taken the next step and become competitive on the national level. Currently their time is No. 4 in the NCAA.
“I’ve seen this team struggle. I’ve seen us work as hard as possible, and I’ve seen our 4×4 increase every year,” Lattin said. “We’ve been working on this since I got to the University. Our 4×1’s together. Now it’s time to put our 4×4 together and build this championship team that we all speak of.”
But for everyone on the team, this is their literal last chance to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships in College Station on March 9.
Only three athletes have times inside the NCAA Top 16, the qualifying mark, the same number as this time last year.
In interviews, the athletes agreed that they expect to see personal records and conference titles come Saturday evening. If enough of them follow through on that goal, the Cougars will have a fair sized squad heading to the NCAA’s.