FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas track and field coaches Chris Bucknam and Lance Harter carry the same approach into the NCAA West Preliminary meet.
Avoid disaster and qualify as many athletes as possible for next month’s NCAA Outdoor Championships. The best way to accomplish it: Make sure everyone takes it seriously even if nobody is thrilled about having to compete in the meet.
“You just have to go into it to win it,” Bucknam said Tuesday. “Win your event and then you are going to be in a better place emotionally to do that.
“The top 12 get to the championship. You can just go out there, and say ‘I'll be in the top 12 or shoot for the top 10.’ There are too many variables that can bite you.”
The Razorbacks men’s and women’s teams take aim at those goals beginning today, when the NCAA West Preliminary meet gets underway in Austin, Texas. The three-day meet serves as the gatekeeper for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., albeit a frustrating hurdle coaches have disagreed with since its inception.
But Harter said as much as he has been against it there’s one thing the Razorbacks must understand: It’s a necessary competition. So the only thing Arkansas’ athletes can do is compete as if a championship is on the line this week.
“Especially with the conditions at Texas,” Harter said. “It's going to be very, very hot, very very humid, somewhat foreign to a lot of people that are coming in from different parts of the country. It will definitely have an effect.
“There are some people who are going to be favorites that probably aren't going to get a ticket to Eugene. And that's unfortunate because ultimately at the national championships you want the best athletes there.”
The Arkansas men’s team is sending 25 athletes to compete in 27 events this week, which ranks among the best in the nation. The women’s team has 19 participating in 22 events. How many slip through and onto the NCAA Championships will determine how much of a realistic run both teams can make at a national title.
The Arkansas men’s team won the indoor national crown in Fayetteville earlier this year, but hasn’t grabbed an outdoor crown since Bucknam’s arrival.
“Hopefully we can get it done,” Bucknam said. “But we think the guys are in a good spot. They are not tied up in the politics of it. It's just go qualify.”
Arkansas pole vaulter Andrew Irwin discovered the danger of the preliminary meet as a freshman last season. Irwin, the NCAA Indoor champion and SEC Outdoor champion, didn’t qualify for the NCAA Championships in the event.
It was a difficult lesson, but Bucknam believes Irwin learned. He’ll have a chance to qualify this time as one of the favorites in the pole vault field in Austin.
“I think he has learned from that and I think as a team we have learned from that,” Bucknam said of his team, which is coming off an SEC Outdoor championship. “You have to have the same kind of attitude you did to win the SEC.”
It’s a precautionary tale the Arkansas coaches can use this week as they take the next step toward the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
“The first round of the NCAA,” Harter said. “They're now just a matter of survival.”