Perhaps the biggest accomplishment Southeastern Conference indoor track and field teams should celebrate was making it unscathed through the regular season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
LSU was one such school, that despite four full team meets and two others in which the Tigers sent split squads, not to experience a pause in practice or competition going into this weekend’s SEC indoor championships in Fayetteville, Ark.
“I know there were many people wondering whether we could pull off an indoor track season, but at this point it’s gone really well, at least within the SEC,” said LSU track coach Dennis Shaver, who has a total of 43 athletes competing in the SEC indoors. “I’ve been proud of the sacrifices that they’ve had to make to keep it safe for themselves, but for our entire staff that works with the athletes, too.”
That’s not to say the league’s signature event to close out the indoor season won’t look dramatically different from years past.
Fans will not be allowed in the Randal Tyson Track Center for the three-day meet that began Thursday before getting into full action Friday and Saturday. In order to reduce the number of competitors in the facility, separate three-hour sessions will be conducted daily for the men and women.
“In our sport there’s a lot of momentum gains, the women feed off the men and the men feed off the women,” Shaver said. “We’re going to miss that at this meet. The challenge is to create their own energy and momentum with no fans and the other gender not there to support them. It’s going to be a little different experience for us.”
The indoor season has been one of adjustment for both LSU’s men’s and women’s teams.
The NCAA’s ruling to not extend an additional year of eligibility for senior athletes after the 2020 indoor season took a significant chunk out of the depth LSU could have relied upon to make a run at this week’s indoor championships.
LSU’s men, ranked second nationally, are competing without such standouts as sprinter Dylan Peebles, jumper Rayvon Gray and hurdler Christian Miller.
The Tigers women’s team, ranked sixth, are without standout hurdlers Tonea Marshall and Brittley Humphrey, while middle distance ace Katy-Ann McDonald did not run this indoor season.
All athletes are eligible to participate during LSU’s outdoor season.
“We’re really missing them, they’re guys that aren’t really replaceable,” Shaver said. “Other guys have stepped it up and have competed quite well throughout the entire season. We’ve stayed pretty healthy which is a part of being successful. I think we’re primed and ready to go. We’re going to do the best job we can at the SEC meet. It’s a real challenging meet.”
If LSU’s men are to keep pace with No. 3 Arkansas, No. 8 Florida and No. 9 Georgia, the Tigers will rely more on a balanced effort led by sprinter Terrance Laird and high jumper JuVaughn Harrison. They are both of which are ranked No. 1 nationally in their respective events.
Athletes ranked in the top 16 of their respective events have already received bids to the NCAA indoor championships March 11-13 in Fayetteville, Ark.
LSU’s men scored 13 points and the women 10 during Thursday’s opening which featured the distance medley relay and weight throws.
Minnesota transfer Jon Nerdal and Jake Norris finished 3-5 in the weight throw with Nerdal’s effort covering 71-11 3/4 and Norris 70-8 1/2. The Tigers’ distance medley relay (9:43.14) was sixth.
Laird, tops nationally in the 200 (20.41), is also the SEC’s defending champion in the race. Harrison is the SEC’s two-time defending champion in the high jump where he brings in the nation’s top clearance of 7-5 ¾. He’s also No. 2 in the long jump (26-6 1/2).
The Tigers feature the nation’s Nos. 3-4 ranked 60-meter hurdle runners in Damian Thomas (7.69) and Eric Edwards (7.71) and Akron transfer Noah Williams is fourth in the 400 (45.47) with Sean Burrell ninth (45.57).
Williams teams with Burrell, Charles Lewis and Dorian Camel to form the nation’s No. 6 4×400 relay (3:06.64).
“We have strength and scoring power within the sprints and hurdles,” Shaver said. “It’s more of a balanced team and I think that’s important if you’re going to do well, especially at the NCAA level. You’ve got to have that kind of event strength.”
Sophomore miler Davis Bove recently broke one of the school’s oldest records in his specialty, running 3:57.49 in the Music City Challenge Feb. 12. He became only the third male to run a sub 4-minute mile and broke the 26-year-old record of Passmore Furusa (3:58.77).
The LSU women’s team boasts two of the best field performers in the nation in No. 1 pole vaulter Lisa Gunnarson (14-10) and No. 2 high jumper Abigail O’Donoghue (6-2 ¼).
Gunnarson is the defending SEC indoor champion and O’Donoghue, the 2019 indoor champion, was last year’s runner-up in the event, while teammate Nyagoa Bayak (5-11 1/2) is fourth this year in the high jump.
Two other participants that enjoyed solid indoor seasons have been Georgia transfer Aliyah Whisby, the No. 5 long jumper (21-4 ¾) and freshman Monique Hardy, who was fourth in Thursday’s weight throw (70-10 1/2) followed by teammate Emma Robbins who was sixth (67-9).
The Tigers also have talent in the sprints with 200-meter runners Favour Ofili (No. 8. at 23.36) and Symone Mason (No. 9 at 23.38) and 60-meter hurdler Milan Young (No. 6 at 8.14).
They also have a strong 4×400 unit of Amber Anning, Mason, Ofili, and Young that have qualified for the NCAA meets with the No. 12 time of 3:35.29).
“We just don’t have the considerable depth versus some of the other teams,” Shaver said of the women’s team. “At the end of the day, we’re certainly talented in some areas and we look forward to seeing how they compete at this meet.”