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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Sports

Three Cougars and a relay team in the hunt for NCAA title


Amere Lattin, Mario Burke and Quivell Jordan will be traveling to the NCAA Indoor Championships as members of the 4×400 relay team, where the Cougars have the fourth best time in the country. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

For the second straight year, Texas A&M University will host to the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships. On Friday, three individual Cougars and a relay team will make the two hour drive up to Gilliam Indoor Stadium.

When compared to the likes of Florida and Texas Tech, Houston is one of the smaller teams competing, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to scoring as a team. But the team will be representing five events as opposed to three last season, meaning there are enough points possible for the Cougars to make a run at the title.

“I think we can score anywhere between 20 and 40 points,” said head coach Leroy Burrell. “We’re certainly relying on some individuals to do that. But I think Eli (Hall) can contend for a championship in both events, I think Kahmari (Montgomery) can as well, and I think the 4×4 can as well. When you’re in the top five, you’ve got a shot. What we need is a surprise point here or there (from) Nathaniel (Mechler). I think if we do that then we’ll be in the hunt. If not then we won’t.”

Going for history

Senior sprinter Elijah Hall is the first Cougar to qualify for two events at indoors since 1996. He is coming into the championship with the No. 3 60m time (6.58s) and No. 5 200m time (20.51s), giving him a legitimate chance to contend for the double.

If he were to win both, he would be only the fourth to accomplish the feat in NCAA history. It would also be the second straight year this happened at Gilliam Indoor Stadium — Christian Coleman of Tennessee did it last season.

In both races Hall will be facing a loaded field of competitors, many of whom reached the finals in one or both races. Hall already faced several of the sprinters earlier in February at the Tyson Invitational. That meet served as preparation for the championships as he ran in and won both sprints, showing Hall could preserve his strength and still run nation-leading times.

“It’s not difficult at all,” Hall said when asked about running both races. “I trained for this. I’m just ready to go out there and compete. Every day we come out here and work hard so the goal is to go out there and compete.”

Righting the wrongs of the past

Junior sprinter Kahmari Montgomery had been climbing the charts in the program’s men’s 400m since he got onto the team. After transferring from the Missouri Tigers over the summer, Montgomery ran four consecutive races that culminated with him winning the American Athletic Conference 400m title and setting the school record (45.53s) in the process.

This is Montgomery’s second trip to the indoor championships after qualifying as a freshman at Mizzou. Montgomery said his goal for this year is to make it to the finals.

Among the athletes Montgomery will be up against are 2017 bronze medalist Mylik Kerley of Texas A&M and World Championship qualifier Wil London of Baylor. But with the No. 5 time in the country, Montgomery is in a prime position to make the finals and be a threat for the title.

“I have improved dramatically,” Montgomery said about his improvement from a year ago. “I feel stronger, faster, I have more confidence in myself. I feel with the training that I’ve had and the experiences that I’ve had as well, I feel like there’s nothing that’s really blocking me from going out to do what I’ve got to do.”

The dark horse

Sophomore Nathaniel Mechler made history in three ways when he won the AAC heptathlon title. Not only did he break the school and meet record by scoring 5703 points, but he also secured a ticket to the championships with the No. 11 best score in the country. Mechler is the first Cougar to qualify in the heptathlon since 2011.

Burrell said points from Mechler will be critical for the team’s run at the title. And while his path to the podium is more difficult than that of his teammates, Mechler’s prior knowledge of his competitors and the facility from an earlier meet at A&M could prove to his advantage.

“I kind of know what I’m getting into,” Mechler said. “I know where the pits are going to be, I know how the competition’s going to flow. I think right now how it’s looking is if everyone does what they’re supposed to do we’re going to have a good shot of making a run.”

Closing out the show

But the ever-elusive title may come down to the final race of the championship: the men’s 4x400m relay.

After being irrelevant on the national stage in recent years, the relay team had a resurgence this season by breaking the school record twice. Their time of three minutes, 4.18s is the No. 4 best time in the country.

Their path to a title in the 4×4 may be the most difficult. Not only will they have to pass the Texas A&M Aggies and Florida Gators, the gold and silver medalist teams from 2017, but they will also have to surpass the USC Trojans, who broke the NCAA record this season with a time of three minutes, 1.98s.

But the Cougars will have an advantage they have not had in earlier meets. At least two of their runners will have fresh legs when they carry the baton.

Juniors Amere Lattin and Mario Burke missed out on a second trip to the championships as individual runners after placing outside the NCAA Top 16 in the men’s 60m hurdles and 60m dash, respectively. But both will be running as members of the 4×4 team and will be able to focus all of their energy on running their best race possible.

Hall is expected to run in the relay as well, but freshmen Quivell Jordan and Jemiyah Franklin will be traveling as reserves. Regardless, Montgomery will be running the anchor leg for the Cougars, just as he has all season.

“We’re coming in with our heads high, we’re coming in ready to grind,” Lattin said. “Everyone knows what the goal is, everyone knows how to run that track. Whether it’s 12 teams or 16 teams we’re going to come out as champions.”

The NCAA Championships will start with the men’s heptathlon events at noon Friday inside Gilliam Indoor Stadium at Texas A&M University. The championships will be televised live on ESPN3 starting at 5 p.m.

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