FAYETTEVILLE — By standards inherited from 42-times NCAA /84 times conference champion retired Arkansas men’s track/cross country coach John McDonnell, and standards his Razorbacks coached indoor and outdoor track and cross country teams set since 2008-2009 with 21 SEC championships, a national championship and four runner-ups among 16 national Top 10 team finishes, Chris Bucknam’s Razorbacks fell way short at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships on June 5-7 in Austin, Texas.
Yet by the hand that Bucknam and assistants Doug Case and Mario Sategna were dealt, their Razorbacks way overachieved this 2019 Indoor and Outdoor season.
The Razorbacks placed second in the SEC, by far the nation’s strongest track and field conference, both indoors and outdoors.
Nationally, the Razorbacks placed sixth in the annually awarded John McDonnell Men’s Program of The Year scoring off their 25th, 13th and tied for 15th NCAA Championship meet finishes for cross country, indoor and outdoor track.
The 19 points Bucknam’s men scored in Austin came the hard way.
Senior decathlete Gabe Moore, shrugging off the hamstring injury that deprived him of the SEC Outdoor decathlon title, stunned with six team points and an All-American decathlon third-place.
Cameron Griffith, a senior in outdoor track but returning as a 2020 senior indoors, ran a 3:42.13 third in a red-hot 1,500 meters and the Razorbacks again scored, fourth and seventh, in the 4x100 relay, run by Josh Oglesby, Tre’Bien Gilbert, Kris Hari and Roy Ejiakuekwu in 38.58, and the seventh-place 4x400 relay (3:03.40) run by Bryant’s John Winn, Hunter Woodhall, Jalen Brown and Rhayko Schwartz.
Among those sprinters, all but senior Ejiakuekwu return to run for the 2020 Razorbacks indoors and outdoors.
The experience of not challenging for a team top four podium finish in Austin yet defying projections finishing as high as his Razorbacks did left Bucknam both proud and peeved.
The pride was obvious to see his Razorbacks with only individual honors on the line compete fiercely as a team just like they did at the SEC Indoor and Outdoor meets.
“Yeah, we did,” Bucknam replied to question if his Hogs overachieved in Austin. “Those guys competed as hard as any championship team we’ve had.”
Now comes the peeved but with pride a purpose.
“It’s on us as a coaching staff to get them more help,” Bucknam said. “Get us back to where we’re not just contending for championships but winning championships. That’s our goal.”
Of course he wishes he could have more of Moore.
The senior amazed with a third-place performance on a bad hamstring from the May SEC Outdoor severely limiting his training for the grueling 10 events in two-days decathlon.
“Gabe did a phenomenal job,” Bucknam said. “Just shows you how good an athlete and competitor he is really. To be nowhere 100 percent, maybe 80, and nine guys drop out and he hangs in for third. And Mario (Sategna, the field events coach) did a great job getting Gabe through the decathlon.”
Bucknam coaches Griffith, the SEC Indoor, 3,000-meter champion and SEC Outdoor 1,500 meter runner-up, may well be the favorite for the 2020 NCAA Indoor mile after his NCAA Outdoor 1,500 in Austin so close to Notre Dame winner Yared Nuguse and Michigan State runner-up Justine Kiprotich and ahead the rest of an all-star field.
“Cameron nearly won it,” Bucknam said. “He beat the defending Indoor champ in the mile and beat the defending Outdoor champ in the 1,500.”
As for the Doug Case coached sprinters, posting their seasons’ bests at the NCAA Outdoor, Bucknam said, “That’s a tribute to them and a tribute to coach Case. We placed with both relays loaded with freshmen and guys coming back from injuries.”
So even if his Razorbacks as a whole couldn’t be a national podium team, they were a team passing on the want-to to next year’s team.
“I would have to say this team showed as much as heart whether Indoor Conference or Nationals or Outdoor Conference, Regionals and Nationals because they were the highlights of our season,” Bucknam said. “They weren’t early-season meets that didn’t count. The best meets that we had were the ones that counted.”
Subtracting only Moore and Ejiakuekwu and counting on SEC champ for all seasons Gilbert Boit, winning SEC Cross Country, the SEC Indoor 5,000 and SEC Outdoor 5,000, and what Bucknam believes is a strong recruiting marks evidence his Hogs are on the way up for 2020 track.
“I hope so because I may jump off a cliff if we’re not,” Bucknam said. “We are a championship program and we need to get back to that.”