Sunday, June 15, 2008

National Champions Once Again! Lady Tigers Return to Glory

This year’s NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships unfolded exactly the way that LSU head coach Dennis Shaver had anticipated with the women’s race for the team championship coming down to the very last event of the weekend.
With 20 events already in the books, the Lady Tigers and the Sun Devils of Arizona State were tied with 59 points each and both teams advancing a 4x400-meter relay into Saturday’s final.
The stage was set for a dramatic conclusion to an already exciting four days of competition at historic Drake Stadium on the campus on the Drake University. The team that crossed the finish line first would walk away from the meet as national champions of the 2008 outdoor season.
With a national television audience tuning in to CBS’s coverage of the meet’s final day, Shaver elected to run with a team of senior Brooklynn Morris, senior Kelly Baptiste, sophomore LaTavia Thomas and senior Deonna Lawrence looking to end a five-year drought by winning LSU’s first outdoor national championship since the 2003 season.
Arizona State, the defending NCAA Outdoor champions and winners of three straight national championships, countered with a relay foursome of Dominique’ Maloy, Jordan Durham, Shauntel Elcock and Jeavon Benjamin after qualifying sixth in the preliminary round.
But the Lady Tigers were confident as they entered the meet with the nation’s No. 2 ranked relay after winning this year’s NCAA Indoor crown in the event back in March.
Morris opened with a blistering split of 52.35 seconds before handing off to Baptiste on the first exchange. Baptiste, who was running on the relay in place of junior Nickiesha Wilson, ripped off a split of 51.83 in just her second appearance on the 4x400 relay this season. Thomas followed with a 52.28 split of her own before giving way to Lawrence’s 51.68 split on the anchor.
The Lady Tigers carried the stick around the track with a seasonal best time of 3 minutes, 28.33 seconds to score eight points with a runner-up finish in the race to Penn State (3:27.69).
The Sun Devils were unable to keep pace with the Lady Tigers as they finished in fifth place with a time of 3:33.45, and the final score for the meet after 21 events read LSU 67, Arizona State 63.
“There’s no better time to run a seasonal best than at the NCAA Championships,” Shaver said. “Our girls were well-prepared coming into the meet, and they certainly performed very well out there today when the championship was on the line. I made a point to tell each of them to just be calm and relaxed in the race, and I was confident that they would pull it out.
“If we wouldn’t have beaten Arizona State, then we just weren’t destined to win the track meet. They have a great team and Greg Kraft has built a tremendous program over there, and I knew in that last event that they weren’t going to give up until one of us crossed the finish line.”
The Lady Tigers were fortunate enough to cross the finish line ahead of the Sun Devils and win LSU its 31st NCAA team championship in program history nearly 75 years to the day that the Tigers won their first national title way back on June 17, 1933.
It also marks the first time in his four years at the helm of the program that Shaver has led LSU to a national championship in the sport that has given the school more titles than any other team.
“I’ve been around for a lot of national championships, but this one is special because it’s my first as a head coach,” Shaver said. “I’m even more excited for our kids because they’ve worked extremely hard for us this year, and it’s great to see all of their hard work pay off. That’s the most satisfying thing, especially for our seniors who went out as national champions for the first time.”
And Baptiste is one senior who played a key role in LSU’s championship run as she not only ran on the 4x400 relay that clinched the title, but she was also the fourth-place finisher in the 200 meters earlier in the afternoon after crossing the finish line with a time of 22.95.
This comes just one day after Baptiste won her first career NCAA title in the 100-meter dash and ran the anchor leg on the Lady Tigers’ 4x100-meter relay team that was the NCAA runner-up on Friday evening. She led the Lady Tigers by scoring a total of 19 points for the meet.
In all, Baptiste ran a total of nine races on the weekend, including three rounds of the 100 meters, three rounds of the 200 meters, two rounds of the 4x100 relay and the final of the 4x400 relay.
“I’ve only run on the 4x400 twice this year, but it’s always been in the back of my mind that I might be asked to do it when my team needed me to,” Baptiste said. “Coach Shaver told me the whole season that if the team ever needed me that he would put me on it. He did today, and I was definitely prepared for it. I wanted to put it all on the line for my team to win the title.”
And that’s exactly what each of the Lady Tigers did on the final day of the competition as the Sun Devils took a 59-31 lead before LSU even set foot on the track for the first time.
Thomas kicked off the action at 3:19 p.m. CDT by scoring eight points with a runner-up finish in the 800-meter run as she crossed the finish line with a time of 2:04.38. This is the second time that Thomas has earned All-America honors in the event this season as she was the NCAA Indoor champion at the indoor national meet in March.
Baptiste and sophomore Samantha Henry followed at 3:37 p.m. by scoring a total of nine points in the 200-meter dash with Baptiste (22.95) placing fourth and Henry (23.22) finishing fifth. This marks the first time in her LSU career that Henry has earned All-American honors in the 200.
The Lady Tigers evened the score with the Sun Devils at 3:53 p.m. when Wilson finished second in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 13.00, while senior Jessica Ohanaja followed in sixth place with a time of 13.32. After the final of the sprint hurdles was completed, the women racked up a total of 28 points in approximately 34 minutes.
The Lady Tigers then clinched the team title with their runner-up finish in the 4x400 relay as they have now won a total of 25 NCAA team championships in the history of the women’s program.
The LSU women have won an impressive 11 NCAA Indoor titles and 14 NCAA Outdoor titles as their outdoor total is 10 more than the four national championships won by Texas.
The men’s team just missed winning a national championship of its own by finishing the meet in a tie for second place with the Auburn Tigers at 44 points. The Florida State Seminoles defended their NCAA Outdoor crown with 52 points as they have now won three straight NCAA titles at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Only two Tigers stepped onto the track during the final day of the competition, and senior sprinter Richard Thompson gave LSU eight big points in the men’s race with a second-place finish in the 200-meter dash. Thompson clocked a time of 20.44 into a stiff headwind as he finished runner-up to defending champion Walter Dix of Florida State (20.40) by a split second.
It was Thompson’s third All-America honor for the meet as he also won NCAA titles by winning the 100 meters and running on the Tigers’ 4x100-meter relay on Friday evening.
Senior Elkana Kosgei earned All-America honors of his own with a fourth-place finish in the 800 meters as he crossed the finish line in 1:47.34. In his one and only season at LSU, Kosgei proved to be one of the nation’s premier 800-meter runners as he was the national runner-up in the event at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
With their effort, the Tigers finished among the top five teams at the NCAA Outdoor meet for the ninth straight season dating back to a fifth-place finish in 2000.
“You also have to give a lot of credit to our men’s team for competing the way that they did at this track meet,” Shaver said. “We really had to have the perfect meet because Florida State just has too much firepower when they step onto the track. We did about all we could do to stay in the hunt, but their team was just too much for us. You have to credit their athletes for getting the job done this weekend.”
Not only did the Lady Tigers win an NCAA team championship, but the Tigers and Lady Tigers combined to win four individual event titles on the weekend to go along with an impressive total of 15 All-America honors earned by LSU athletes.
LSU athletes on both the men’s and women’s sides have also combined for an impressive total of 65 individual and 29 relay titles all-time at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, while they have also received a total of 1,024 All-America selections in program history dating to the first time the team stepped onto the track in 1897.

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