May 11, 2010 12:58:00 PM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- With each meet this track season, Mississippi State''s men''s relay teams have built notoriety and put its stamp on the nation''s high-profile events.
As easy it''s been for the No. 12-ranked Bulldogs, there''s been bumps in the road, Mississippi State coach Al Schmidt said.
Runners have had to switch places at meets to counter how other top relay teams set their order and race multiple events -- both relay and individual -- over the duration of a meet.
Nagging injuries to D''Angelo Cherry (hamstring tendentious) and Kendall May (bone spurs) haven''t had a critical effect on the team because of its dearth of sprinters. But with the Southeastern Conference Championships this week and nationals looming in June, the Bulldogs would like to run their three final meets at full strength.
If the Penn Relays were any indication, though, Mississippi State''s ascending form is nearing an SEC title level.
After finishing second to Texas A&M in the 4x200 relay at the Texas Relays, the Bulldogs won the Championship of America title at Penn Relays with a 1:21.49.
The Bulldogs followed that win with a first-pace finish in the 4x400 relay (3:04.92) and a 4x100 relay win (40.09) at the Penn Relays.
The Penn Relay wins came against SEC heavyweights Florida and South Carolina, and the Bulldogs had better times in the 4x200 and 4x400 at Texas Relays.
If Schmidt can take away anything from April it''s his team''s propensity for showing up on the big stage.
"I think that''s all determined on the kind of athlete you have," Schmidt said. "Luckily, we have the type of athlete that can fight and be that good. Unfortunate part is, just because you''re that talented, there''s two or three other teams that are as good as you are. You blink and it''s over.
"It''s good to go to Penn Relays and not blink and know that we can battle. Not only not blink, but fight. It''s tough to run that many races in that span of days."
At the beginning of each year, Schmidt targets the tradition-rich Penn Relays and Texas Relays as benchmarks for where his sprinters rank heading into the SEC Championships and national championships.
This year, Mississippi State is primed to finish higher at the conference meet than in 2009, when it finished ninth with 44.5 points.
Since the SEC doesn''t run the 4x200, Mississippi State is banking on a pair of victories in the 4x100 and 4x400 for 20 points. The likes of Starkville native Tavaris Tate, Emanuel Mayers and Dwight Mullings have top-3 times in the open 400, 200 and 400 hurdles, respectively.
Relay events have been prime-time moments for MSU, and Mayers, who runs on the 4x400 team, believes the team is in business mode with three meets left.
"If you come out and perform like you''re on a good team and know you have your teammates and coaches are supporting you, then all you have to do is your job," Mayers said. "That mindset is big, especially with the talent we have this year."
Tate believes the Bulldogs have shown their world-class talent by displaying the ability to adapt to running different legs of relays and not dropping off. It isn''t always the easiest thing to do because of individual events in which runners may participate and the adjustments needed to switch focus and technique to match whichever leg of the relay.
"It''s a struggle at times because everyone has different mindsets at practice and what they want to do at a certain meet," Tate said. "Sometimes it''s difficult because you have to adjust your speed and your come-out to a different athlete, but when it comes down to relay meets, we come together in practice. We know we''ve got to have everything on one accord because the sticks have to be right at the meet."
The team''s preparations for Texas was a "struggle," Tate said, due to the depth issues. The shuffle of runners, which saw Tate run the second leg instead his usual anchor, caused extra attention to handoffs.
"Going into Penn Relays, though, everything was perfect. God was on our side, and we showed up," Tate said.
MSU''s 4x400 relay team is set with O''Neal Wilder, Mullings, Mayers and Tate, but the 4x100 team has seen some shuffle with Gerran Hendricks running the third leg and Justin Christian leading off at the Penn Relays after Kendall May and Mullings ran legs at the Texas Relays.
May, who suffered a broken leg last season, has battled bone spurs this season. Schmidt said May hasn''t experienced pain, but the injury is causing structural problems. May, who also runs the open 200, was an All-American in 2008.
Schmidt is hopeful May and Cherry, who was an All-American last year with a 10:04 100-meter mark, can get back to full fitness in time for SECs, NCAA regionals and nationals. Improved relay times will correlate with how well runners are performing in their individual events, Schmidt said.
Currently, Mississippi State''s 4x100 team has the fourth-best time in the SEC (39.53) behind Florida, Auburn and LSU. The 4x400 team is second behind Florida at 3:04, nearly four seconds behind the Gators'' sub-three minute time.
"I feel like the times we''ve run now and the times we''ve posted earlier this season, we''ve progressed a lot," Tate said. "If we keep our heads on together, we keep our focus and we remain hungry, we should drop a couple a tenths of a second. But deep in the game as it is now, either we step our game up and work harder or we''re not going to progress anymore."