LSU sprints toward NCAA outdoor meet

Maybe it’s because of the speed they use to get from one point to another, but the NCAA outdoor track and field championships can’t get here fast enough for LSU sprinters Aaron Ernest and Vernon Norwood.

For different reasons, the top sprinters for the sixth-ranked Tigers have been waiting for what must seem like an eternity for the national semifinals and finals that begin Wednesday in Eugene, Oregon.

Ernest has been waiting nearly three months to compete in the NCAA outdoor meet after missing the indoor championships because of a hamstring injury he suffered while working out on his own over the Christmas holidays.

Norwood, who competed in the indoor meet in mid-March, has been waiting much longer than Ernest for outdoor nationals after having to attend a junior college after a stellar prep career at Morgan City.

“This is like a big dream for me,” a smiling Norwood said. “I had big dreams when I was in high school of wanting to be here at LSU, one of the best programs in the country, and competing in outdoor nationals.”

He’ll finally get the opportunity after being one of the nation’s elite sprinters from 200 meters to the indoor 600 as well as on the 4x400-meter relays during a two-year stay at South Plains (Texas) College.

A six-time NJCAA All-American, Norwood helped his team win three 4x400 titles at nationals as well as the indoor 600 meters before getting the opportunity to return to his home state.

He immediately paid dividends for LSU coach Dennis Shaver and is one of the Tigers’ top entrants this week.

Norwood is seeded second in the open 400 with a personal-record time of 45.17 seconds and anchors the 4x400 relay team that had the best time in the NCAA preliminary rounds at 3 minutes, 2.64 seconds.

“I feel great, and I’m ready to get it started,” Norwood said. “At these meets, the coaches get us prepared to get to the final, and then we just have to do what we can to help the team. There are no excuses.”

During his first indoor season, Norwood was second in the 400 at the NCAA indoor meet to Texas A&M’s Deon Lendore, the bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, and anchored the Tigers to a victory in the 4x400 relay en route to an eighth-place team finish.

“We won the relay at indoor nationals, and that was a big spark for our outdoor season,” Norwood said. “It brought us a lot closer together because it proved anything is possible when you work hard as a team.”

Norwood expects to improve on that eighth-place indoor finish with the addition of Ernest to the championship mix.

Ernest, a junior, is a six-time All-American who is just two years removed from a solid 2012 season in which he claimed the silver medal in the 100 and 200 meters at the World Juniors. He also was on the 4x100 relay team that won gold.

Ernest’s expectations for a big season after earning three All-America certificates to go with the three he won as a freshman in 2012, took a big hit when he injured his left hamstring just before Christmas.

He’s struggled to get back to where he once was, but said he’s ready to go in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay this week.

Ernest had the third-fastest time in the NCAA preliminary rounds in the 200 at 20.38 seconds and the 12th-best time in the 100 with a 10.19. He also runs the second leg on the 4x100 that has the No. 4 seed time at 39.04 seconds.

“It’s not 100 percent, but it’s pretty close,” an upbeat Ernest said. “By far, this is the best I’ve felt all year long. So I’m ready to make all the hard work I had to put in just to get back on the track pay off this week.”

Ernest said he felt he was fit enough to handle a heavy workload in the Southeastern Conference championships in May, but faltered in the finals — finishing sixth in the 100 and 200 after the Tigers took second in a loaded 4x100 final.

“At the SEC meet, I felt like I let my team down,” he said. “We were expecting big points in the 100 and 200, and I didn’t deliver. I had close to season-bests in the (preliminary rounds), so that’s encouraging. I feel like I’ve gotten over the mental part of it, and I feel fine.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.