The quest for 50 has begun for the Arkansas track and field teams as they split up their forces for their outdoor season opener, competing at Texas Relays and the Stanford Invitational.
It was less than a month ago when the Razorbacks completed the sweep at the NCAA Indoor National Championships, bringing the program its 48th and 49th national titles. The next closest programs, LSU and Oregon, have 32.
Each time Arkansas wins a track and field national championship, a flag flies inside John McDonnell Field with the updated title count. It serves as a symbol, not only of the greatness that has come before, but also of that which has yet to come.
“We work year round, you know, 12 months out of the year training,” senior decathlete Ayden Owens-Delerme said after raising the 49 flag. “Every day we come out here, we’re working hard, sweating. Blood, sweat, tears and we look up at that flag and say, ‘We’re building towards being a national championship-caliber team.’”
Many of the other teams across the nation began their outdoor season two weeks ago, but the Arkansas coaching staff opted for more rest, getting a later start to the season.
Since they have yet to compete outdoors, the Razorbacks do not carry a national ranking, so it may be hard to determine where they stand among other title contenders. Still, the confidence is apparent around the practice facility.
“We’re excited about our outdoor team,” Arkansas women’s head coach Lance Harter said. “I think a lot of our power that occurred at indoor nationals could even be better outdoors.”
Harter’s belief in his coaching staff and his athletes to be even stronger during the outdoor season is warranted considering the events that do not exist during the indoor season, most notably the 400-meter hurdles.
With the addition of the 400 hurdles, one of Arkansas’ top athletes will get her chance to shine in her primary event. Junior Britton Wilson left her mark on the NCAA last outdoor season, winning the Southeastern Conference championship in the 400 and the 400 hurdles before becoming the national champion in the latter.
“I just always have a personal goal for myself, just to do better each time,” Wilson said. “I know sometimes I can be a little too hard on myself, like sometimes I’m like, ‘Well I won, but that’s not good enough I need to run faster.’ I feel like sometimes I can be too hard on myself with that, but I do know that it keeps me going and it keeps me wanting to be better because I always know I can give more.”
As one of five Razorbacks named to the preseason watch list for The Bowerman — an award given to the most outstanding male and female track & field athlete in the NCAA — Wilson will look to lead her squad to its first outdoor national championship since 2019.
Owens-Delerme, another Hog on the Bowerman watch list, is at the center of one of the most interesting storylines of the season. After a slew of setbacks in his career, he finally achieved his goal of becoming a national champion during last year's indoor season, following up with another individual national title in the outdoor campaign.
As the reigning national champion, Owens-Delerme was the favorite to win the heptathlon. He gave it his all and ended up breaking the collegiate record in the event, but Georgia’s Kyle Garland one-upped him and took the title.
After falling just short, the two-time national champion will enter this outdoor season with a fire lit inside of him.
“You saw that (extra motivation) when he grabbed the stick to run the 4-by-400 at the end of the indoor meet, he’s an unbelievable competitor,” Arkansas men’s head coach Chris Bucknam said. “We all know Kyle is a phenomenal athlete. He knows it, and we’re not fretting over it. He’s going to go back to work and dial it in when it comes time.”
Wilson and Owens-Delerme are joined by sophomore Ackera Nugent, freshman Jaydon Hibbert and senior Carey McLeod on the Bowerman preseason watch list.
Nugent, Hibbert and McLeod, each new additions to the Arkansas roster this season, are poised to be difference makers come championship season as the Razorbacks are much improved from last year's outdoor season.
The outdoor transition will allow for several Arkansas athletes to make an impact. The introduction of the steeplechase gives the Arkansas women an advantage, as they have two high-level steeplechasers in junior Laura Tabora and senior Gracie Hyde.
The men also gain an advantage because of their strength in the discus, an event not present during the indoor season. After throwing shot put during the indoor season, senior transfer Rojé Stona will look to bolster the throwing team, competing in his primary event.
Fellow transfer, sophomore Ralford Mullings, will make his Arkansas outdoor debut in both the discus and the shot put. As the reigning NCAA outdoor bronze medalist in the former, Mullings adds to the crew of new Razorbacks looking to make an impact.
“New events will be the main change for us outdoors as we add the 4-by-100 relay, the 400-meter hurdles and the discus,” Bucknam said. “Our big event outdoors is the discus, which includes Rojé Stona and Ralford Mullings. They both threw the shot put indoors and made huge improvements. In the discus, they are both national scorers.”
Despite an influx of talent, Arkansas will not be at full strength this outdoor season. Senior Lauren Gregory will be unable to compete after sustaining a foot injury during the women’s mile at the indoor national championship.
Gregory is by far Arkansas’ most decorated distance runner. As a five-time NCAA medalist and 12-time SEC medalist, her abilities and veteran leadership will be missed.
With a roster consisting of collegiate record holders, national champions and international-caliber athletes, Arkansas enters the 2023 outdoor season as one of the teams capable of hoisting another banner. The talent is there, but the Razorbacks will have to execute if they are going to raise numbers 50 and 51 at the end of this season.
After an impressive opening weekend, which featured a pair of individual victories in both the shot put and the discus, the Razorbacks will split up once again when they compete in the Long Beach Invitational, the Bryan Clay Invitational, and Mt. SAC Relays April 12-15.
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