In many ways, the Southeastern Conference championships are a lot like the national meet the LSU track and field teams will find itself in just a couple of weeks from now.
At least that’s the way LSU coach Dennis Shaver is approaching the three-day league championships that begin Thursday morning in Starkville, Mississippi.
A four-week stretch of high-caliber competition that will wrap up the 2015 outdoor season starts with the conference meet, which should get the second-ranked Tigers and No. 8 Lady Tigers ready to vie for national honors in the NCAA preliminary rounds later this month and the national semifinals and finals next month.
Continuing the preparation for what’s to come is the main goal for both LSU teams this weekend, but with added incentive: the chance to take the next step against some of the country’s top teams and individuals.
“We’ve continued to try and build teams that can win NCAA titles,” Shaver said. “That doesn’t mean our main focus isn’t on the SEC. We think about it, and we want to do well.”
That doesn’t always translate into a top finish at the league meet, thanks in part to a large number of SEC teams always near the top of the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association rankings.
This year is no different.
Nine SEC men’s teams and nine women’s teams are among the top 25 in the USTFCCCA power rankings — including five men’s teams in the top 10, which is topped by six SEC teams in the women’s top 10.
Texas A&M is atop the men’s rankings, followed by No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Florida, No. 8 Arkansas, No. 9 Georgia, No. 12 Alabama, No. 18 Mississippi State, No. 22 South Carolina and No. 24 Tennessee.
Arkansas leads the women’s national poll, followed by No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 Kentucky, No. 8 LSU, No. 9 Texas A&M, No. 16 Alabama, No. 19 Mississippi State and No. 25 Missouri.
“We have a much deeper conference than 25 years ago,” Shaver said. “With the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, then Texas A&M, it got even tougher. Entry-wise, you have to approach this meet like you do an NCAA meet.
“You try not to double a lot of your people so they’ll be ready for nationals,” he said. “So you try to represent LSU the best you can with the opportunities you have. You’re also concerned about staying healthy.”
Shaver said the health of his team is a plus going into the conference meet after the Tigers battled injuries to several of their top sprinters a year ago and struggled to an eighth-place finish. Still, LSU was able to finish fourth at nationals.
In reality, because of the depth of the competition, Shaver said a top-six finish in the men and women’s races would have his teams on the right path going into the NCAA East preliminary rounds May 28-30.
Part of that confidence comes from the fact that three of his athletes lead the nation in their respective events.
Vernon Norwood leads the NCAA with a personal-best 44.44 seconds in the 400 meters, Rodney Brown has a school-record throw of 213 feet, 5 inches in the discus and the Lady Tigers’ Tori Bliss leads the nation as well after a school-record toss of 60-8 in the shot put.
Norwood’s time makes him the No. 8 performer in collegiate history in the open 400, while Bliss is now the No. 9 collegian in the shot.
Shaver noted those nation’s-leading performances have all come in the last three meets of the regular season, which, he said, bodes well for his teams.
“This year, I really believe our top-level performers are going to perform even better here in the next month,” Shaver said. “We’ve had lots of personal-bests, especially in the last month.
“We’ve done pretty well during the outdoor season,” he said. “We just have to continue to do well.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.