EUGENE, Ore. — The image of Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake hobbling on one leg and grimacing after finishing off a win in the 4x100-meter relay in the NCAA final likely won’t go away anytime soon for the LSU track and field team.
With a hamstring cramp afflicting the Tigers’ star sprinter, who emerged as one of the nation’s top sprinters, came the realization that their hopes for a team title had vanished Friday night after just one running event.
It was suddenly gone for LSU, which, in the semifinals, had positioned itself nicely to make a strong run at its first NCAA outdoor title in 14 years.
But, with or without Mitchell-Blake, there was still much work to do for the Tigers to finish off their season, much like there was for the Lady Tigers when the four-day NCAA championships ended Saturday.
While nothing can take the place of a national team title, the Tigers and Lady Tigers did, for the most part anyway, what they were aiming to do when they finished fifth and sixth, respectively.
It was an especially tough hill to climb for the men after Mitchell-Blake was hurt considering the Tigers had only seven more scoring opportunities to try and keep up with other contenders.
“I knew at that point without Nate that we had to win every time we lined up on the track,” LSU coach Dennis Shaver said. “I’m just disappointed for our guys. They’ve worked so hard all year long to get to this point, and it’s just unfortunate to see it end like that.”
While the injury was the lowlight of the meet for LSU, coming seconds after Mitchell-Blake helped produce what should have been a momentum-building victory, the Tigers and Lady Tigers wound up combining to win three of four relay titles — staples of the nation’s most successful programs over the years.
The LSU men won the 4x100 and 4x400, while the women took the 4x100 Saturday — just like their counterparts did a day earlier — and finished a strong fourth in the 4x400 relay to cap four days of competition.
Like the Tigers, the Lady Tigers set a Hayward Field record in the sprint relays, with the men winning in 38.42 seconds and the women getting the stick around in 42.65 seconds to break a record that was set by LSU two decades earlier.
Of course, Shaver and the Tigers had their eyes on a team title that wasn’t realistic after Mitchell-Blake limped through the 100 meters and withdrew from the 200 final — the event in which he set a personal-record time of 19.95 seconds on May 14 in winning the Southeastern Conference title.
Still, clocking the fastest time in the nation and third-fastest time in the world and then producing one of the top times in the 100 semifinals on Wednesday night didn’t guarantee Mitchell-Blake and LSU anything.
It showed in the final point totals as LSU finished with 41 points, about 17 fewer than some projections.
“I’m not going to say we would have won,” Shaver said, “but if Nate had been healthy, we would have made it interesting.”
Florida went on to win the team title with more points than LSU might have mustered had Mitchell-Blake been available, while Arkansas took second.
Still, there were bright spots for Shaver, like a solid 2-3 finish from Fitzroy Dunkley and Michael Cherry in the open 400, a fourth-place effort from Renard Howell in the 200 and the 4x400 relay that included Dunkley and Cherry as well as Cyril Grayson and LaMar Bruton.
It was the third consecutive 4x400 national title for LSU, counting the 2015 outdoor crown and the indoor title earlier this year.
No one had to tell Shaver that the mile relay victory could have meant so much more, but there were those other things to be pleased about.
“If you’re in the top five in this meet year in and year out, you’ve done something,” he said. “We’ve been able to do that for several years running, so that consistency speaks for itself.
“This year, we had a tremendous group of guys that worked real hard all year. I was just unfortunate that we had an injury like that at the end.”
The same goes for a young Lady Tigers team whose only key personnel loss will be All-American hurdler Chanice Chase, Shaver said.
“I’m proud of the effort we saw from this team over these two days,” he said. “It gives us a lot to look forward to in the coming years.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.