June 9, 2010 11:06:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Though each relay race goes through the same three handoffs and covers the same distance, there''s plenty of strategy involved.
Many variables, including a runner''s current form or performance in individual events and opponents'' strengths can factor into how a coach shifts the lineup.
The Mississippi State men''s track team has made the right calls in its 4x100- and 4x400-meter relay events this year, setting up high expectations for this week''s NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore.
The Bulldogs enter the NCAA championships as the No. 5 seed in the 4x100 and the No. 2 seed in the 4x400, but how coach Al Schmidt and his staff will set the lineups for each event remains a race-time decision. This is especially true of the finals, where MSU is expected to reach in both events.
Mississippi State tipped the Florida Gators for the 4x100 crown at the SECmeet and beat the Texas A&M Aggies in the 4x400 at the Penn Relays. The Bulldogs enter the NCAA championships seeded behind the Aggies in the 4x400 and behind the Gators in the 4x100.
Freshman Tavaris Tate turned in a blistering anchor leg against the Gators in the SEC 4x400 final, rescuing second place by making up nearly 100 meters. Tate has been first-choice anchor for the Bulldogs'' 4x100 and 4x400 teams for most of the season, but at the Penn Relays the Starkville native ran the second leg.
Then, at the NCAA regional in Greensboro, N.C., Tate ran the third leg of the 4x400 while Emanuel Mayers ran the anchor.
Tate responded with a 44.6 split, faster than his personal best in the open 400 this season.
"We wanted to make sure that we were free of everybody since we weren''t in the heat with Florida," Schmidt said. "The goal was to be clear of everybody by the time the anchor got the stick. It worked out perfectly from the start. O''Neal (Wilder) put us in the lead and Dwight put down a 45.12. By the time Tavaris handed the stick off, we were clear of everybody."
Tate looks back to the 4x400 final at the SEC meet as a turning point in his season because up to that point he''d never had to chase someone like he did in that race. He begins nationals with a bit of "get back" in the open 400, too, after falling to fellow freshman standout Kirani James of Alabama.
"Getting second at SECs, it just made me realize that I had certain things I need to tune up," Tate said. "Being that Kirani James had beat me before, it''s kind of like a rival thing now. I''ve beaten him all season, he beat me, then we came back to regionals and he got fourth. It''s a competitive field in the 400, and I have to keep my head on straight and just understand the path I have to do at a track meet."
In the 4x400, Mississippi State is expected to challenge the Aggies for the national title. How the Bulldogs set up for those events will be critical, though Schmidt and his staff don''t have to worry about racing the Big 12 giants until the finals.
"We''ll be in a situation where we won''t be in the prelim heat with them won''t be in a semifinal heat with them," Schmidt said. "I don''t know what the strategy''s going to be to make sure we get into a good lane in the finals if we get there. Once we get to the finals, we''ve got to look and see how A&M looked in prelims and how we looked in ours. It''s hard to not use Dwight and Tavaris where it''s best for us. Right now, O''Neal Wilder is a great leadoff leg, and so it''s going to be a decision where we put [Mullings and Tate]."
The Bulldogs also will be aided with the NCAA''s restructured race format, which won''t cram multiple sprint relays and open sprint finals into one day.
"The final day sets up perfect because it''s the first time in the NCAA that the 4x1 and 4x4 are free of the 400, at least in some fashion," Schmidt said. "They''ll be done with their events when we go on Saturday. The unfortunate thing about Saturday is we''re running at 9:30 in the morning out there so that we can be live on television out here (Starkville).
"For our guys, it''s perfect with the finals in the 400 Friday night. It''s like the NCAA had us in mind when they did it this year."
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