July 9, 2010 9:28:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Four Mississippi State track athletes return to the international level today at the NACAC Under 23 Track and Field Championships in Miramar, Fla.
The meet is scheduled for today through Sunday, featuring teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Team USA features two of the nation''s top 400-meter runners in Mississippi State''s Tavaris Tate, of Starkville, and O''Neal Wilder, while MSU coach Al Schmidt returns for a second straight year to captain the distance runners.
Tate''s already superb Team USA credentials could be strengthened with a repeat of his top-five finish in the open 400 meters at the USA Track & Field Championships in June. Tate ran a 44.84 that day, shattering the 45.56 he turned in at the NCAA National Outdoors.
Tate and Wilder will run the 4x4 relay and at some point will cross paths with MSU hurdler and relay partner Emanuel Mayers, who is set to run the 4x4 and 400 hurdles for Trinidad and Tobago.
Wilder''s second international meet since knee surgery and Mayers'' upcoming clash against his collegiate teammates are anticipated by Schmidt and both countries'' senior-level coaches, though Tate''s resurgence after a disappointing fifth-place finish at nationals in Eugene, Ore., will garner the most attention.
Tate took home Pan-Am gold in the 4x4 and silver in the open 400 last summer and is currently ranked No. 6 in the world in the 400.
No longer bearing the disappointment of not winning an NCAA title, Tate be believes he is in the best form of his life. Two weeks ago, the pressure to bounce back was alleviated with the confidence of running against a higher level of competition. NCAAs provided a similar scenario, though he admits to underperforming at collegiate track''s grandest stage and locale.
"Going in (NCAAs), I felt great and had my mind set on winning it," Tate said. "But it was a learning experience and you don''t win them all. I was down after that race, but I put myself in another world to regain confidence, strength and hunger for wanting to win."
That process started immediately after the Bulldogs returned home from Eugene. Tate got back to the drawing board and entered the USATF Championships renewed and hungry to re-stake his claim amongst the world''s elite.
"Being the young dog, everyone is watching and wondering if I was going to take it," Tate said. "These aren''t just college athletes you''re running against. I had to put myself in another world (for USATF) and I''m satisfied with my 44."
While Tate believes his down day at NCAAs came from lack of mental sharpness, Schmidt believes fatigue is to blame. Tate, who just completed his freshman season, is a tireless worker in training but can wear down like any other athlete, Schmidt said.
"It''s hard to turn them off and on and have them perform at a top level every single time," Schmidt said. "If you''re just a little bit tired, it can almost be a whole second in the 400. At SECs, Tavaris ran seven or eight races, and the same thing in the first round of the NCAA. So when he got to Oregon, there was a bit of fatigue.
"What you saw at USA championships is how good and how fit he is (now). As he gets older, he''ll be able to handle all the rounds even better. You may see something special this weekend."
Indeed, Tate figures to be a top-three contender and a threat as the potential anchor of the 4x4 against sprint heavyweights Jamaica and Trinidad. He''s shooting for a low 45 mark in preliminaries and another sub-44 effort in the finals.
Tate is excited to run in a climate similar to what he experiences training in Starkville, adding more juice to a runner in full form.
The opportunity to run at the international level comes with the added chance to make an impression on national team coaches and officials. Wilder and Tate were constants at the junior level (U-19), both earning 400 junior national titles and podium finishes at junior world events.
National team experience is invaluable as athletes have the same routine and training as the senior squad. Because of the treatment, Schmidt isn''t concerned with his All-Americans burning out because of an extended summer.
"The process is the same for every athlete and the same at Worlds and Olympic games," Schmidt said. "It''s a training ground for the way the US will position them in those events. This is important to their overall careers. They''ll have plenty of time to rest over the next eight or nine weeks."
The anticipated down time will certainly be welcomed by Wilder who, combined with football and track, has been training at a high level for 14 months. Wilder, ranked the No. 2 junior in the 400 at the end of 2008, later had surgery to repair a fractured knee cap. He was near full strength by the end of the season and Schmidt believes the knee isn''t affecting Wilder''s times.
"I think O''Neal is beyond that," Schmidt said. "This 45.21is his personal best and he''s one of the top kids right now. I think he''s looking forward to a little down time after this weekend. His knee, I guess, it''ll never be 100 percent, but he''s as far up the percentage as he could be. His first day this season, I don''t think he could have made the women''s team and he''s getting to where next year he''ll be in the 44 range."
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