EUGENE, Ore. — Dennis Shaver wasn’t completely disappointed when his LSU teams walked away from the Southeastern Conference track and field championships four weeks ago with sixth and eighth-place finishes.
A set of unusual circumstances, primarily leg injuries to several of his top sprinters, left Shaver’s teams a bit short-handed in the most competitive conference meet in the nation that weekend.
That’s why he was dismayed, but certainly not disheartened, with the two biggest meets of the outdoor season — the NCAA East preliminary rounds and the NCAA championships — still in front of them.
Still, if anyone had told Shaver in mid-May that the Tigers would tie for fourth place and the Lady Tigers would finish sixth — just one point out of fifth — he might have offered a wry smile.
At the same time, Shaver looked at the final two meets as a major challenge for his athletes. They had to advance through the preliminary rounds and then convert those chances into points in the national semifinals and finals.
For the most part they did, taking advantage of the scoring opportunities they had and maximizing their points, with one exception on each side.
The sixth-ranked Tigers scored 29 points even though highly ranked discus thrower Rodney Brown didn’t make the final in his event. The eighth-ranked Lady Tigers picked up 34 points despite not getting the stick around in the 4x100-meter relay final Saturday.
While they didn’t threaten Oregon for the men’s title or Texas A&M for the women’s crown, the seven days of competition between the NCAA preliminary rounds and nationals meant a lot to Shaver.
“I’m proud of the way our athletes handled all seven days of this competition,” he said Saturday. “When you look at all the things that happened throughout the year, these athletes had every reason not to have the confidence they competed with at the national meet.”
Their desire to make up for the low conference finishes was evident from the start of the NCAA preliminary rounds, and it continued at nationals with two second-place finishes, four thirds, three fourths and two fifths.
The Lady Tigers and Tigers, who produced a top-five finish for the 13th time in the past 15 seasons, closed the meet with a flourish.
Jasmin Stowers and Tori Bliss were second in the 100-meter hurdles and shot put for the Lady Tigers, while the Tigers’ 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams came up with third-place finishes and Aaron Ernest was fourth in the 200 meters.
After the SEC meet, Shaver said it would be interesting to see whether his teams would be up to the considerable challenge that the NCAA meet presents.
He got the answer, although it could have been even better had Stowers and Bliss won their events.
Stowers, who capped a brilliant career with the Lady Tigers, was two-hundredths of a second from taking the hurdles title. And Bliss, a junior, led the shot put for four rounds until being overtaken on the final throw.
“What our athletes did says a lot about they this group this year,” Shaver said. “They targeted this meet after the conference meet and, fortunately, they were able to be rewarded for performing well for seven days.”
As for next season, Shaver is excited about the possibility of getting back in contention for national titles — not just top-five finishes.
The Lady Tigers have a handful of freshman sprinters returning, including three who made up his top 4x100 relay team this season. The group includes Jada Martin, who was injured for the past two months, Rushell Harvey and Nataliyah Friar, along with Chanice Chase, who was fifth in the 400-meter hurdles final.
They will be joined by two of the nation’s top recruits: Baton Rouge High’s Mikiah Brisco (a sprinter and hurdler) and sprinter Aleia Hobbs of New Orleans’ McMain. They combined for seven state titles in the sprints, hurdles and relays at the LHSAA championships last month and 39 for their high school careers.
On the men’s side, all of the Tigers’ key performers return, including Ernest, Brown, Vernon Norwood, Quincy Downing, Darrell Bush, Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake and Tremayne Acy. Ernest, Bush, Blake and Acy were injured for most of the outdoor season.
“We’re going to put together another solid, high-quality group next season on both sides,” Shaver said. “We’re going to miss a few people on the women’s side, people with NCAA experience, but we’re excited about the people we have and the ones we have coming in.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.