FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Decked out in black singlets, Tennessee marked its last day of NCAA Indoor mourning with a ferocious comeback to capture the school's first NCAA Indoor title with 62.5 points Saturday night in front of 5,567 fans, the second-largest crowd in facility history, at the Randal Tyson Track Center. Since John M. Thornburgh became the first Tennessee track and field letterman in 1897, the Volunteers have won every conceivable title save one - the NCAA Indoor title. Led by NCAA Indoor meet high scorer Justin Gatlin's 22 points, nine Volunteers pieced together a championship effort and changed Tennessee track and field history on the home track of collegiate track's greatest dynasty.
On a blustery day when the winds howled through northwest Arkansas, the Volunteer nation found jubilation as opposed to heartache for the first time in program history, as the newly-crowned Volunteers bounced the joyous strains of "Rocky Top" off the rafters adorned with rows of championship banners at the Randal Tyson Center to conclude the meet. With overachieving performances down the line, Tennessee outdistanced its conference foes for the title, as Alabama (second, 47 pts.), LSU (third, 44 pts.) and Arkansas (fourth, 39 pts.) rounded out the rest of the SEC's dominating quartet.
"To come into Arkansas and pull off the NCAA Indoor Championship is something that we've never done in the history of Tennessee track and field," head coach Bill Webb said. "I couldn't be happier for our athletes and coaches. Our competitors kept hoping we'd stumble, but we never did. I just wish more people from Knoxville could see this. This is a special, special win."
The Volunteer contingent set the tone from its first race of the day. True freshman Marc Sylvester ran in a manner that belied his age, as the Vol rookie overachieved to finish runner-up in the 800M run in a school indoor record time. Sylvester entered the meet with the nation's fifth-fastest time. When his team needed him most, Sylvester ran a torrid 1:47.41 to best Vol great Jose' "Tony" Parrilla's 1994 indoor school record of 1:47.77. Sylvester's time is the sixth-fastest ever by a Vol (indoor or outdoor). His eight points moved the Vols to within six points of leader Alabama.
"I just had a feeling today," Sylvester said. "There were no jitters at all. All week Coach Watts and I have been watching film of Tony breaking the record with his late charge. Just to be mentioned in the same light as Tony is amazing. When I was warming up I looked at Justin (Gatlin) and told him I was going to set it up for him. Every little thing helps us today."
In the 400M dash, Gary Kikaya continued the high-intensity tone with a school indoor record 45.93 to earn third, despite entering the NCAA meet with the 11th-best time. Kikaya answered the bell by breaking the 400M dash indoor school record for the fourth time since he arrived on campus in January. Kikaya's heroic effort pulled the Vols even with leader Alabama's 34 points.
Tennessee 60M dash sprinters Justin Gatlin and Leonard Scott pulled off a 1-2 finish to propel the Vols into the team lead for the first time of the meet and send shock waves through the rest of the contenders. Gatlin's 6.59 60M dash effort gave the Vol sophomore his second NCAA title in as many days. Gatlin collected his fourth NCAA title of his short career with the win. Gatlin nabbed the 18th all-time individual NCAA Indoor for the Vols and goes a perfect seven for seven in his quest for All-America acclaim in each NCAA race he has entered.
"I feel happy," Gatlin said. "We want to start a dynasty here. My teammates had the feel of a champion today. Every time we step on the track, we want to be a champion."
Scott's runner-up finish in the 60M dash gave the Volunteer hopes a critical shot in the arm. Scott finished just behind Gatlin in 6.61 to secure the 10th All-America certificate of his storied Vol career. After Gatlin and Scott beat the pack to the finish line in the 60M dash, Tennessee raced to the top of the leader board with 52 points compared to Alabama's 34 points.
"I thank the Lord for everything," Scott said. "When I first decided to come to Tennessee, I knew it was a great decision because they'd make me my best in track and football. I thank my coaches for always being by my side. We came here as a team. I'm so proud of my teammates. Everybody had to take care of their individual business. My main goal is that we came in here as Tennessee to win the championship."
After fighting off illness for most of the week, Rocky Danners gave the Vols enough of a cushion to secure the team title. Danners tied for sixth with a 17-7 3/4 clearance. Danners started the competition leaping for three consecutive clearances with no misses. After entering at 17-0, Danners moved on to jump 17-3 3/4 and 17-7 3/4 with a perfect slate. However, he missed his three attempts at 17-11 3/4, the winning height, but managed a solid second attempt. In the end, Danners set the Vols up with two and a half points, which would prove enough. After some frantic arithmetic, the Tennessee coaching staff figured that with the 4x400M relay, the last event of the meet, Tennessee could miss out on scoring giving national event leader LSU 10 points for winning and the Vols would still win by a mere half point.
With the team title locked up by a fraction, not unlike the 2001 NCAA Outdoor Championships last June, Tennessee breathed a little easier as the black-clad Vols lined up to secure the team title in the 4x400M relay. The Vols took runner-up honors in 3:06.87, the second-fastest Tennessee effort of the season. Gatlin led the meet-capping effort off before handing off to Dwayne Bell on the second leg, where he ran the unit's second-best split (46.5). Scott was assigned the third leg. Kikaya put the finishing touches on Tennessee's second-place effort with an unthinkable 44.9 split after running the 400M dash finals earlier in the day. In a testament that anything can happen anytime in track, national 4x400M relay leader LSU dropped the baton. The Tigers finished but didn't score to provide the razor-thin victory margin Tennessee expected.
With a clean finish, Tennessee's Volunteers spilled onto the track to enjoy the moment as the best collegiate track has to offer for the second-straight time.
The NCAA Indoor Championships will be shown Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. on ESPN2.