When Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake blazed a path to victory in the 200 meters to complete a sweep of the short sprint titles at the Southeastern Conference championships this month, he wasn’t the only LSU athlete to light up the electronic timing system.
Powering his way down the middle of the track, Mitchell-Blake easily caught the eye of the crowd at Alabama’s Sam Bailey Stadium when he left most of the expected competition in his rearview mirror.
Mitchell-Blake, a junior, won with a personal-record time of 19.95 seconds to join Xavier Carter, who posted an eye-popping 19.63 back in 2006, as the only LSU athletes to ever run under 20 seconds in the event.
Way out in Lane 9, the toughest to run the 200 from, LSU’s Renard Howell was officially and emphatically burying a lost indoor season with a PR of 20.15 seconds for an impressive 1-2 finish by the Tigers.
The time knocked nearly a half-second off his old best of 20.62, which he set at South Plains (Texas) College, and moved him into fourth on LSU’s all-time list four months after a hamstring injury sidelined him for the entire indoor season.
“Based on the training we’ve been doing and competitive practices we have, I expected a big drop in my time,” a smiling Howell said this week. “I knew my speed would come, and it was all going to come together when I needed it to.”
It did, and when Howell took a peek at the clock stationed near the finish line, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“When I looked at the results, I felt overwhelmed,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I ran that fast.’ I felt it was going to come sooner or later.”
Still, it was a long time coming for Howell, who suffered a Grade 2 hamstring injury in practice in January and was brought along slowly by the coaches and trainers so he could run as fast as he did that afternoon in Tuscaloosa.
It helped shake the final vestiges of the injury and, more importantly, set him up for the NCAA East preliminary rounds that begin Thursday and the national semifinals and finals in three weeks.
Now, he feels he can run the way he did at South Plains.
He was the NJCAA champion at 200 meters and ran on the winning 4x100-meter relay a year ago in leading the Texans to a ninth consecutive team title while becoming one of LSU’s prized recruits.
But the speed he flashed in winning those national titles was shelved when he had to rehab the hamstring injury in the midst of the indoor season.
“It was sickening, I promise you,” Howell said of the wait to get back in the starting blocks. “I had to sit there watching everybody run fast. I knew my time would come, but basically I had to get healthy again.”
His time came just after the NCAA indoor meet in mid-March.
Howell said his left hamstring, which was injured when he fired out of the blocks in practice, started feeling a lot better. That allowed him work out with his teammates and do the things he missed out on while working with trainers.
Then, coach Dennis Shaver came up with a plan to bring Howell along slowly during the early part of the outdoor season.
“It was frustrating for Renard to get hurt early in the (indoor) season,” Shaver said. “It really was the first time he’d ever been hurt in his life, so it was kind of hard on him mentally.
“But we took our time with it and waited until he felt real comfortable. We knew that if we rushed him and he had another setback, he would probably be done for the outdoor season as well.”
While it was painstaking, Howell, who has the third-fastest time in the country this spring, agreed it was the right tact to take.
“This is the best school I could’ve come to,” he said. “Coach Shaver and all of the coaches and trainers, really, constantly communicated with me about what we were going to do. Basically, they were slowly going to work me back into meets.”
Shaver started Howell out in the 4x400-meter relay on April 9, where he’s an alternate for the team that posted the fastest time in the nation at 3 minutes, 00.38 seconds, and eventually put him in the 4x100 lineup.
With Howell running second leg on the short relay, LSU posted a nation’s-best 38.93 in late April and topped that with a 38.33 clocking in the SEC final.
“We started him out on the 4x400 to get his confidence back, and now he’s an integral part of the 4x100 — which is important to us, too,” Shaver said. “We didn’t want to run him in the 200 until late in the season and it’s seemed to work really well.”
It certainly did in only his third 200 of the season in the SEC final.
“Nobody expected me to do that out of (lane) nine,” Howell said. “I didn’t want to focus on anything but my lane. The plan was to stay relaxed and focused in the stretch. … It came out well, I would say.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.