Tennessee's top-ranked track and field squad stands undefeated following its first scored meet of the season courtesy of a half-point, nail-biter of a win Saturday at the SEC Eastern Division Challenge at Florida.
The Volunteers accumulated 158 points to slip past host Florida's 157.5 points and four other conference foes (South Carolina 82, Georgia 76, Kentucky 74 and Auburn 53.5) on the fast track at the O'Connell Center. Tennessee put crucial, and perhaps unexpected, bookends on the day's competition with Keith Kimmons' gritty win in the 5,000M run to open the day and notched a NCAA automatic qualifier in the 4x400M relay to close the meet and retake the lead for the final time.
"We're done with the first half of the season and can reevaluate where we are," coach Bill Webb said. "We know we have a good team. Florida wanted this meet in the worst way. We beat them on their home track. They have a good home track advantage, so this is like the football team winning in The Swamp. I like the way we competed and scrapped. Keith Kimmons started us off right today by winning the 5,000M run. We won the first event and the last event and fought like warriors in between."
With the Vols down 4.5 points entering the 4x400M relay, the final event of the day, the orange and white quartet raced to the finish line in 3:09.68, an automatic qualifier for the NCAA Indoors, to avenge a loss last week in the event to South Carolina.
Justin Gatlin led off the relay to get Tennessee out of the hole in a hurry. Dwayne Bell, the last man to cross the line in the event last June to secure Tennessee's one-point NCAA Outdoor win, took the second leg. True freshman Marc Sylvester, who turned in a school indoor 600M run record last weekend, drew the third leg. Newcomer Gary Kikaya contributed another strong anchor leg to ward off the challengers and secure the Tennessee victory in the Vols' first scored meet of the year.
Tennessee accumulated plenty of points in the sprints. Leonard Scott clocked in at a provisional 6.21 to take top honors in the 55M dash. Sean Lambert crossed third in 6.34 after clocking a season-best 6.32 in the 55M dash prelims. In the 200M dash, Gatlin posted a strong provisional time of 21.20 to earn top honors. Scott took third in a provisional 21.37, though not quite as fast as last week's 20.89. In the 400M dash, newcomer Kikaya contributed a third-place, season-best 47.88, followed by Dwayne Bell's fifth-place, season-best 48.14. Also, Tennessee went 2-3 in the 55M hurdles to score crucial points. Karl Jennings took silver in 7.37, while co-captain Hassaan Stamps took bronze in 7.46.
The Vols also got some help in the middle distance and distance races. Besides Kimmons' clutch 5,000M win in a career-best 14:48.12, the Vols fared well in the 800M run, mile run and 3,000M run.
Tennessee takes a rare weekend off before making a trip to New York, N.Y., for the Armory Invitational Feb. 9.
Bennett leads Lady Vols
Junior Kameisha Bennett did it all for the Lady Vols track team in Gainesville.
Bennett helped the 4x400m relay post a strong NCAA provisional qualifying time and record the second-fastest reading in the Southeastern Conference this season, and she also notched a provisional of her own in the 800 meters to highlight Tennessee's performance at the SEC Eastern Division Challenge on Saturday afternoon at the O'Connell Center.
Bennett joined with freshmen Antoinette Gorham, Dee Dee Trotter and Nicole Cook to crank out a time of 3:41.36, the second-fastest reading of the meet behind a victorious 3:38.32 from South Carolina. The performance vaulted UT's 4x400m relay ranking from 12th to number two in the SEC and puts UT's quartet in solid contention for a berth at the NCAA Indoor Championships, a trip UT did not come close to making a year ago in posting a top reading of 3:51.50.
In the 800m, Bennett clicked off the best season-opening race of her Lady Vol career, taking fourth in 2:09.97 to etch her name onto the provisional list and place fourth against a very strong field. A year ago, Bennett had a forgettable start, crossing the line in 2:36.78 at the SEC Quad Meet in Lexington, Ky. She would bounce back the following week with a PR 2:12.29 and later peaked out at 2:07.09 to qualify for the 2001 NCAA Indoor Championships. It appears 2002 could be better.
"The 4x4 ended the meet for us on a positive note," UT coach Myrtle Ferguson said. "We saw four people out there who will probably be representing us at nationals, and that was a boost for our morale, as was the effort by Kameisha Bennett. That's the best start she's had since she's been here, and it only serves to build her confidence in her training methods and her abilities."