FAYETTEVILLE – At least Arkansas track coaches Chris Bucknam and Lance Harter now like the format of the meet they’ve loathed.
Razorbacks Women’s Coach Harter and Men’s Coach Bucknam have long lobbied against the needlessly season extending extra layer of the NCAA West Qualifying meet looming Wednesday through Saturday in College Station, Texas as the gateway to the NCAA Outdoor Championships June 9-12 in Eugene, Ore.
The East and West meets and the week’s recovering in between bumps the NCAA Championship so late that elite collegiate American athletes will report with barely a break before the U.S. Olympic Trials start June 18 in Eugene.
“It sucks,” Bucknam said. “Really unfair.”
And already a hardship to the athletes topping the best performance lists throughout the season yet subjected to an extra one off moment of being supplanted.
“It just adds another layer to eliminate the real good ones on a false start or a stumble or a hiccup of any type,” Harter said. “You can be an American record-holder or the world record-holder and in the Regional meet if you don’t get it done you’re out.”
But that’s how the game is played and 2020-2021 SEC Cross Country-Indoor-Outdoor triple crown coaches Harter and Bucknam have played it successively, Harter so successively that his Razorbacks reign as defending national champions. They won the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Women’s meet, the last NCAA Outdoor in the books since the covid-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 season.
Both coaches approach this week’s meet in College Station like it’s the first round in Eugene and both like how their teams will be showcased.
For just like the NCAA Championships in recent years, this week’s East and West Regional meets will split the four days with two days all men competing (Wednesday and Friday) and two days (Thursday and Saturday) all women competing.
“I like the format for the NCAA Championships and they moved it back to Regionals for the first time,” Bucknam said. “Having a day off in between is good. And you can have those days where the men can shine on their own and those days the women can shine on their own. And I just think it’s an easier meet to follow.”
“As Chris said it just highlights the specific gender on that day,” Harter said. “The original idea of doing this was TV was excited about it and it went so well that they said we’re going to try to stick with it. And then due to covid we’re going to try to limit the numbers on the track at any one time. They’ve lightened the load so to speak with the men one day and the women the next.”
Harter’s nationally No. 2 SEC Razorbacks and Bucknam’s nationally No. 14, but likely to finisher higher Razorbacks, both advanced a load of Regional qualifiers to their competing days to Texas A&M’s Cushing Stadium, the same place their Razorbacks outpointed the nationally No. 1 for both men and women LSU Tigers while winning the SEC Outdoor earlier this month.
“We do have a huge contingent,” Harter said. “We have 32 scoring opportunities. We’d obviously like to have as many qualified to the final to Eugene as possible if we’re going to try and fight for a position on the podium. We need especially those that are at the top of their event list to get through unscathed and ready for the big challenge that’s going to occur in the final in Eugene.”
Bucknam brings big numbers, too.
“Obviously the more weapons you have the better,” Bucknam said. “We have 27 entries at this meet this weekend. You add the two in the decathlon at Eugene (the arduous men’s decathlon and women’s heptathlon are the only events with the best performances automatically advancing to Eugene) you are looking at 29 possible scoring opportunities. We’re in 15 of the 21 events. We’ve got both of our relays in so it feels good as a team.”
It feels even better for Bucknam that top Arkansas decathlete Markus Ballengee, forced by injury to withdraw during the SEC decathlon, can keep healing instead of competing this week.