STARKVILLE — When members of the Mississippi State track and field team first stepped on the renovated surface at the Carl Maddox facility, they didn”t want to stop running.
It had been four years since MSU held its last on-campus track meet, but that will change Saturday when MSU will play host to the Southeastern Conference-Big Ten Challenge.
MSU”s runners hadn”t been able to practice at their facility during construction this spring. They had to travel to Columbus High School to use that track and to make due with working out on grass during the latter portion of the 2010 outdoor season and the recently completed indoor season.
The $3.2 million dollar project, which ran behind schedule and was completed nearly a month ago, was a “tease” to the athletes who walked by it every day.
Now, just two days before they will get a chance to compete at home, the Bulldogs are relieved to have a top-notch, Class-1 surface. MSU, Arkansas, and LSU are the only SEC schools that have surfaces certified to host NCAA regional competitions.
“I was like, ”Finally!” ” freshman high jumper James Harris said. “I haven”t been here like the rest of the guys. It”s a beautiful track, and we”re going to have some fast times.”
MSU Director of Track and Field Al Schmidt said the surface is similar to that of the University of Oregon, which serves as host to the NCAA Championships each year.
“It feels really good, really bouncy,” sprinter Keisha Wallace said. “It”s fast through the turns, where I think I”m fastest anyway.”
The nine-lane track has lanes that are a half-foot wider than typical lanes and have an engineered slope in its turns to aid in building/maintaining speed in the corners.
MSU track coach Steve Dudley referenced NASCAR”s high-banked speedways in an analogy to describe the design.
MSU”s facility is also equipped with four long-jump runways and dual shot put rings, which allow for non-stop competition.
The goal was to have a facility that could serve as host to the SEC outdoor meet and an NCAA regional.
“(Visiting teams) are going to be surprised how the track sets up for getting qualifying marks,” Schmidt said.
With two more home events after the SEC-Big Ten Challenge, athletes will gain valuable mental and physical rest, Dudley said.
“It”s tough being on the road every weekend,” he said.
The Challenge will be the culmination of a 14-month project by Schmidt to get a big-time meet in Starkville. He started by recruiting schools that have well-known football programs in hopes of drawing fan interest. He ended up with Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, and Purdue from the Big Ten and Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Auburn from the SEC.
The uniquely-scored meet will take the top four times/marks in each event from the SEC and Big Ten schools to build a final heat.
Schmidt and Dudley anticipate quality competition at the meet, which will begin at 9 a.m. with field events. Track events are slated to begin at 1 p.m.
MSU”s men”s team, ranked No. 8 nationally, is joined by No. 6 Indiana and No. 20 Ohio State.
Ranked women”s teams are No. 18 Ohio State and No. 20 Auburn.
MSU”s vaunted sprint relays are led by hometown All-American Tavaris Tate, who is ranked No. 1 nationally in the open 400 and the anchor leg of the third-ranked 4×400 team.
Indiana high jumper Derek Drouin won the high jump title at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field championships in College Station, Texas, clearing 7 feet, 7 3/4 inches to set a Big Ten indoor record and to tie the Canadian national record.
“If you come to this meet and watch every event, then next summer watch the Olympic games, you”ll watch some of the same athletes,” Dudley said. “It”s like going to a football game and seeing a future Super Bowl winner.”
Sprinters know they”re the feature
MSU”s men”s sprinters made noise during last year”s outdoor season, knocking off national powers for big wins at the Millrose Games and Penn Relays.
The Bulldogs haven”t had the chance to do it at home.
On Saturday, the team”s deep and talented sprint group knows most people are going to show up to see them.
On the road, especially at the bigger national meets, they were always the underdogs, the unknowns in the shadows of Texas A&M, USC, and Florida.
“I think it”s more added motivation than pressure (to deliver for home fans),” junior O”Neal Wilder said. “Everyone in the sprint group has been successful. We have the confidence that as long as we execute everything will take care of itself. (We just want to) have fun and that should satisfy the crowd.”
Wilder, Tate, and Emanuel Mayers return this season after finishing second in the 4×400 relay at nationals last season. The addition of freshman James Harris and redshirt freshman Daundre Barnaby will give the Bulldogs plenty of options.
“We”ve got more depth than we”ve ever had,” Dudley said. “We”re so deep, in June it could change. At least six deep on 4×4 and 4×1 is about seven or eight deep.”
The depth will help keep runners healthy throughout the season, which Tate , who is working back from a minor hamstring tear and strain, knows is crucial. With more options, runners have a better chance to finish better if they run fewer events.
“It”s a lot of stress off my body,” Tate said. “This year, we got enough people to be able to score and qualify for different races and still focus on your individual race. Freshmen and upperclassmen, with the depth we have we need to put in the work to qualify to get to where we need to be. If we don”t, then having the depth is in vain.”