Mississippi State’s track and field coach says he likes being the underdog and his athletes say they want to “shock the world” at this weekend’s conference meet.
They’ll both get their opportunity to back up their words when the Bulldogs travel to Athens, Geo., for the 2011 Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships starting today.
Mississippi State will enter the meet without arguably its best sprinter in nationally-recognized prospect Tavaris Tate and Bulldogs head coach Steve Dudley has stated the sophomore will not travel with the team due to a severe leg injury that occurred in the preliminary rounds of the Penn Relays earlier this season.
“Tavaris is hurt,” Dudley said. “I’m not going to run anybody that is hurt. I guess it’s the hamstring or something wrong in the leg. It doesn’t really matter does it?”
Dudley, who is finishing his first season as head coach of the MSU program, stated firmly when he met with the media Tuesday afternoon that his athletes being banged up heading into the most important conference meet is not an excuse for a less than satisfactory performance in any events.
“Injuries are kind of like opinions – nobody wants to hear about them and the only person that can change them are the person that has the opinion or injury,” Dudley said. “I’m not going to say we’re not going to do well because we don’t have this person or that person.”
The Bulldogs carry with them a No. 22 national ranking and runners ranked in the Top 25 in six different events. Freshman James Harris leads the charge with his No. 5 standing in the high jump, followed by D’Angelo Cherry at No. 8 in the 100-meter dash.
Former State football wide receiver O’Neal Wilder will compete in the 400-meter dash, 4×100-Meter Relay and 4×400-meter relay and may be the healthiest he’s been all season after slowly getting back into form following offseason surgery on his hip.
“He’s been banged up from football all the way up to now,” Dudley said. “We really didn’t get going until February. Every meet he’s getting better and better fitness wise.”
Wilder is hoping to peak in this meet because this event will likely be in front of the biggest crowd of the outdoor season so far this season..
"I played football here, so I'm used to competing in front of 60,000 people,” Wilder said. “When the spotlight is on me, I know I got to do what I got to do."
Unlike last season when they went in against Florida and Alabama as a favorite to win the SEC meet, the Bulldogs will be projected to finish near the bottom of the league’s overall standings.
“Hopefully what’s happening now is they’re getting a little excited because as before we were kind of a favorite but now we’re back to being an underdog again and that’s the way I like it,” Dudley said. “I like going into a meet with people thinking we’re not going to do anything. I like that a lot.”
The Lady Bulldogs travel to Athens with two individuals ranked in the Top 25. Jessica Merriweather leads the way with her 13th place ranking in the high jump. Merriweather is joined in the Top 25 by Richesa McCaleb at No. 17 in the 200-meter dash.
“We hope the women’s squad will have the highest finish in the history of the program,” Dudley said.
After wrapping up action in Athens, MSU will travel to Bloomington, Ind., May 26-28 for the preliminary rounds of NCAA Championship competition before heading to Iowa June 9-11 for the NCAA Championships.
"If we're ever going to win a national championship at this university, we need to be putting everything into nationals," Dudley said.
While he claims this may not be a popular opinion to many fans of his program, Dudley says the goal is to build the depth and maintain the health in order to win a national championship and not go all-in for a conference title.
“We're gonna go to SECs and compete as hard as we can, but there's been years in the past when we may not run or jump someone in SECs just to ensure that they're going to be healthy for nationals," Dudley said. "If you asked me if I wanted to be No. 2 in the conference or top 10 in the country, I'm gonna tell you top 10 in the country. There's 400 schools in the NCAA, there's only 11 in the men's side at SEC."