A brutal winter, the inability to go indoors for training sessions and an unusually long list of injuries have made the 2014 season the most difficult of Dennis Shaver’s 10-year run as head coach of the LSU track and field program.
The misfortune, however, hasn’t stopped the Tigers and Lady Tigers from making their annual run for high team finishes at the NCAA championships, which begins Wednesday in Eugene, Oregon.
The four-day meet, which has brought the top 12 finishers from each event from the NCAA East and West preliminary rounds for the national semifinals and finals, will cap a season that’s been anything but normal since before it started with the indoor campaign in January.
“It’s been difficult and a bit of a challenge from the standpoint that we have a system in place that has suited us well over the years,” Shaver said this week. “But a lot of different things made it hard for us to implement and teach the things we wanted to do.
“It’s definitely been a different situation for us,” he said.
Yet, Shaver believes the Tigers and Lady Tigers have enough qualifiers from the preliminary rounds to vie for top-10 finishes with the men perhaps having a chance to crack the top five in the final standings with a little more quality —- which is the key at nationals.
The sixth-ranked Tigers, one of five Southeastern Conference teams among the top seven in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s final rankings, have 10 chances to score at nationals; the eighth-ranked Lady Tigers have 13.
Competitors in each event for the meet have been seeded based on their times and marks at the East and West preliminary rounds.
The LSU men have five top-four seeds — including the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays — and the women have five inside the top eight with points awarded to the top eight finishers.
While maximizing their points with the scoring chances they have going in is always the goal, Shaver said, it’s even more important this week.
“If we get great performances from our people, we can be in the top 10 with both the men and women,” he said.
To do a little better on the men’s side, Shaver’s Tigers, who have 12 top-five finishes in the past 14 seasons, will need solid performances from Rodney Brown in the discus and sprinters Vernon Norwood and Aaron Ernest as well as their relays.
Brown, a fourth-place finisher in the NCAA meet last season, had the nation’s top mark in the prelims at 207 feet, 10 inches but likely will need to approach the school-record toss of 210-10 he had at the Penn Relays in April to score big.
Norwood is seeded second in the 400 meters after recording a time of 45.17 seconds at the East prelims and anchors a 4x400 relay unit that turned in the second-best time at 3 minutes, 2.64 seconds. He’s joined on the relay by Quincy Downing, Darrell Bush and Cyril Grayson.
Ernest, who didn’t qualify for indoor nationals because of a hamstring injury that hampered him all season, had the third-fastest time in the 200 at 20.38 seconds.
But Ernest clocked a 20.14 last month and is a threat to also score in the 100 even though he had only the 12th-fastest time at 10.19 seconds. Ernest teamed with Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake, Tremayne Acy and Shermund Allsop to run the fourth-fastest 4x100 relay time in 39.04 seconds.
The Lady Tigers’ top competitors based on marks produced at the East prelims are Jasmin Stowers, who is seeded fourth in the 100-meter hurdles (12.91) and Nikita Tracey and Chanice Chase, who are seeded fifth and sixth, respectively, in the 400 hurdles with times of 56.23 and 56.40.
The 4x100 relay of Stowers, Rushell Harvey, Jada Martin and Nataliyah Friar is seeded seventh (43.94) along with Denise Hinton in the hammer (202-2). Lynnika Pitts is tied for the No. 8 seed in the high jump (5-9¾).
“Just being in the top 10 is not necessarily where we want to be, but we know anything can happen at this meet,” Shaver said, “so we’re certainly looking forward to the challenge.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.