May 13, 2010 8:06:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Al Schmidt described Mississippi State''s track performances at the Penn Relays as "magical."
Who knows how he''ll feel if the Bulldogs continue their trophy-winning form.
With a trio of sprint relay Championship of America titles at the historic Penn event, Mississippi State''s dominant sprinters enter the Southeastern Conference Championships aiming for a top-half finish.
"It was probably the best weekend in track and field I''ve had in 35 years, other than the national championships we won at Florida State," Schmidt said. "We think we have the best 4x100 and 4x400 teams in the country, but as we talked it''s a round one of three that we have to deal with."
Schmidt knows the sprinters hold the key to helping the team score more than the 44.5 points it notched last year at the SEC event.
Starkville native Tavaris Tate, the nation''s second-ranked quarter-miler, heads a group of five runners that is ranked in the top 10 in eight individual events and in the top four of two relays in the SEC.
Florida, LSU, and South Carolina figure to provide the toughest competition at the SECs, which starts today with the men''s decathlon preliminaries.
The SEC meet, however, is just one of three pivotal meets in the next month. The Bulldogs will have NCAA regionals and the NCAA Championships the second week of June.
"You may win a gold medal in world championships or Olympic Games or the SECs, but then you''re judged on how you do the next race," Schmidt said. "It''s very difficult to sit on your laurels from one week to the next. The fortunate or unfortunate part about the SEC is you really can''t blink.
"What''s difficult for these athletes is the number of races they have to run. There may be men and women here who will come out of the meet having run eight to nine races. Then we have to be standing up in two weeks and go to the first round of the NCAAs."
Kendall May, Dwight Mullings, Tate, and Emanuel Mayers will compete in three or more total events this week in Knoxville, Tenn., but fatigue didn''t hold the team back at Penn or Texas Relays. The challenge, Tate believes, is balancing focus and strategy between competing in individual and relay events and being prepared to switch legs in relays.
"Sometimes it''s difficult because you have to adjust your speed and your come-out to a different athlete," Tate said. "Penn Relays was a good example of getting equipped for the SECs to where I ran multiple rounds at a 4x2 and 4x1, and then anchored the 4x1. You''ve got to keep your head on straight and focus on the race at hand."
Tate and Mullings look to make the 400 a MSU sweep. Both enter with 2010 personal records in the top four. Tate''s 44.86 is just .01 second behind University of Florida senior Calvin Smith, who has clocked the league''s fastest quarter mile this season. Mullings is fourth in the 400 (45.48) and third in the 200.
The Bulldogs have four of the top 10 400 times in the SEC, and Schmidt hopes 2008 All-American Kendall May, who has been battling a bone spur in his ankle, can add to the point total with a return to form in the 200 and 100. May is ranked eighth in both events.
Mullings and Tate relish the chance to race Smith for a league title this season.
"I''ve studied Calvin for a couple of years," Tate said. "Being that he''s No. 1 in the SEC, he''s going to be a big target for everybody. Me and Dwight have proven we''re the best quarter-milers in the SEC, so Calvin is going to be a threat, but we know we can go out and take care of that."
Mullings, an All-SEC pick who won the 400 at the Mideast Regional last season, said he''s comfortable with the hype of the race surrounding Tate and Smith.
"You can''t hide," Mullings said. "My coach keeps telling me you''ve got to go up there and have heart. This is a conference meet and everybody wants to see what they can do at conference.
"Calvin Smith, I''m happy I didn''t race him earlier on. If I were to race him, I''d come out on top and everybody would be looking at me. This year, less eyes on me, and more eyes on Calvin and Tavaris, so me going in as (someone) who no one really recognizes, I think I can go in and come out on top."
Mullings, a senior, hopes to return to the Jamaican National Team after a mixup with his passport once it expired. He said he was told he could not renew it unless he returned to Jamaica, and since he didn''t the Jamaican Track and Field Association assumed he didn''t want to run.
"The team thinks I didn''t want to run, when they could help me and didn''t want to help me. That was the funniest part," Mullings said. "I came back this year and I want to prove everybody I''m No. 1 in Jamaica, and I want to do everything to keep that position."
With All-America talent and a a trophy haul at Penn Relays, why do the Bulldogs feel overlooked?
Schmidt even remarked, "We haven''t gotten enough respect at 4x1, but maybe we will after this weekend."
Said Tate, "We''re the underdogs. Mississippi State has not been known as a track program. Going into a track meet where people have heard of us, and we go out and show our talent, it''s still a shock to the nation. We''re shocked because we weren''t the expected winners.
"When we go out and take care of business, it''s a pat on the back for us."
There''s an obvious answer for MSU''s perceived lack of respect from the track community: They''re in the SEC.
Despite Martin Lee''s solid chance to win the decathlon and Edward Wesela''s top-six ranking in the shot put, Schmidt said his team could notch a top-five finish at the SEC meet and finish higher at nationals.
"The number of athletes form the SEC to NCAAs, it takes the Big Ten and ACC to equal that number," Schmidt said. "There''s no doubt we''re large percentages above, even the Big 12, so a lot of times the SEC is a more difficult meet than the NCAAs."