June 9, 2010 11:07:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Line up the fastest collegiate runners in the country and Mississippi State would be well represented.
Line up the best 400-meter runners in the world and the Bulldogs would grace the top 16.
Championship swagger comes from results and Mississippi State sprinters have left a trail of success from the Texas Relays to the Penn Relays to the Southeastern Conference meet.
As today''s NCAA championships begin in Eugene, Ore., Mississippi State is powered by its sprint core and a seventh-place finish in the powerful SEC.
"You don''t win two Championships of America at Penn and not think you can''t run with anybody out there," Mississippi State coach Al Schmidt said.
Confidence ingrained, the Bulldogs begin their quest for a top 10 national finish in an underdog position they''ve embraced since the season began.
The Bulldogs are comfortable with being labeled a "burgeoning program," even after sweeping Texas A&M at the Penn Relays and winning the 4x100-meter dash and taking second in the 4x400 at the SEC meet.
And with their nationals contingent of seven runners, the Bulldogs are gelling even more, freshman Tavaris Tate said.
"Even though we have our individual events, it''s a constant team effort because it''s only seven of us," said Tate, who won the open 400 at regionals. "Small but mighty is how we feel. Mississippi State has come a long way as a track program and we have unbelievable talent on the team. Having a shot at nationals is a constant conversation amongst all of us."
The Bulldogs will compete in five events outside of the open 400 and are coming off a regional win in the 4x400.
No. 9-ranked Mississippi State is a favorite to capture the 4x400 crown, entering nationals ranked No. 2 at 3:02.10 behind Texas A&M.
As many as 34 points could come from the 400 and 4x400 if the Bulldogs win both events and claim top three in the open 400. That total alone could squeeze MSU into the top 10, with the 4x100, open 100 and 400 hurdles to add to that total.
"We came out of (NCAA East regional sire) Greensboro (N.C.) in the best shape we could ever think we could," Schmidt said. "We''re confident in the 4x1 that we can make the finals and be a real force. We won the SEC championship and that''s as hard as winning in the NCAAs."
Kendall May, a 2008 All-American in the 100, is fully recovered from a broken leg that cost him the 2009 season. May''s 10.18 personal best this season is seventh in the NCAA.
He''ll team with Justin Christian, Dwight Mullings and Tate on the 4x100.
Emanuel Mayers is the No. 6 seed in the 400 hurdles and is one of only six hurdlers to run less than 50 seconds this season (49.86).
Mayers, who also stars on the 4x400 squad with Tate, Mullings and O''Neal Wilder, is confident he can shave another two to three tenths off his PR after correcting some mechanics at the SEC meet.
In the hurdles, Mayers can be an X-factor in the Bulldogs'' final point tally.
"Two weeks ago, I was struggling with my race and just got back focused," Mayers said. "I went back to my game plan and it worked last week. It was really just getting my steps back to normal.
"Going into nationals, I just want to get out hard, kind of maintain on the backstretch, work the curves hard and just bring it home with what I have left."
MSU''s sprint-based group may not seem versatile enough to challenge for a trophy at NCAAs, but when 45-50 points can clinch the title the Bulldogs are threats in any best-case scenario.
Mississippi State''s NCAA qualifiers are the same athletes who shined at Texas, Penn and SECs, and Schmidt lauds their consistency as the best men''s group he''s taken to NCAAs.
In 2003, the Bulldogs entered NCAAs ranked No. 3 in the country but failed to live up to that ranking with less-than-fit runners as Pierre Brown and Marquis Davis struggled with fitness.
"The SEC was a war that year," Schmidt said.
Form and health aren''t an issue this time around and Schmidt thinks the mental makeup of the team is far greater than the 2003 team and the 2002 squad that took 15th at NCAAs.
"As far as the kids who''ve done it consistently week after week after week, this is the best," Schmidt said. "The ''03 team, there was just a little bit of clay feet at times. This is not designed that way at all, and it''s a tribute to the kids and the coaches that I have underneath me. They do a great job and are on a roll right now."
The University of Oregon track is the same surface currently being installed at MSU. The Eugene site has longer turns, too, which should help Mullings, who according to Schmidt is "the best turn runner in the NCAA."
Schmidt believes the surface is faster than the track at Tennessee, where Mississippi State ran a 39.09 in the 4x100.
Tate, though just a freshman, is familiar with the venue after competing at the United States Track and Field Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2009, where he won the 400.
"Being at Eugene last year was unbelievable," Tate said. "If you aren''t walking, you''re riding a bike. If you aren''t running, you aren''t doing nothing up there. Being out there is going to be an exciting feeling because I''ve felt that track and I understand how it feels to be acclimated with different time zones and different weather. I had an outstanding race last year and it''s a fast track, so I''m looking to do the same thing this year."