Feature: Raising The Bar

May 29, 2007

By: Stefanie Loh
Oregon Daily Emerald

May 29, 2007

Eugene, OR (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Oregon's Tommy Skipper thought his performance at the NCAA West Regionals in Eugene on Friday was not his best.

But in only his second competitive effort of this outdoor season, the four-time NCAA champion pole vaulter set a new school and Pac-10 Conference outdoor record.

Skipper took first with a 19-0 1/4 (5.80m) mark.

'I actually don't feel all that well,' Skipper said. 'My left and right calves and hamstrings were kinda cramping up a little bit today, and I think I was a little dehydrated.

'To be honest, none of those attempts felt very good. Even on my 19, it didn't feel technically sound. And it's a positive thing: If it doesn't feel good and you still cleared it, you know there's more there.'

Skipper's performance highlighted an impressive day for the Oregon men.

The squad faced a difficult decision with the 4x400m relay team.

Should Oregon sprints coach Dan Steele risk keeping junior sprint specialist Phil Alexander - who was still recovering from a hamstring injury sustained at the Pacific-10 Conference Championships two weeks ago - on the anchor leg? Or should he put true freshman Chad Barlow in the position of having to carry the team through to the finish?

Alexander had helped the Ducks to a third-place finish in the 4x100m final earlier in the day, so Steele knew he was at least fit enough to run a leg in the 4x400m.

But how fit was fit? Years of coaching had taught Steele to be careful with hamstring injuries, and as important as the relay was, he didn't want to push Alexander too hard.

Taking a chance, Steele announced 20 minutes before the start of the race that Barlow would run the anchor leg.

The gun sounded and leadoff man Marcus Dillon took off. The junior had already run two races that day; he'd led off on the 4x100m relay, and then put everything he had into the 400m, finishing second behind USC's Lionel Larry in 46.31, a .31-second personal best, and winning an individual bid to nationals.

But fatigue might have accounted for Dillon's mediocre 47.23 first leg split, and he handed off to freshman Ashton Eaton with the Ducks in fourth place behind USC, Washington and Arizona State.

Eaton made up some ground for the Ducks, and when he put the baton in Alexander's hand, Oregon was just barely in second place.

Alexander kept pace with the leaders, then kicked in some speed on the final curve and got the baton to Barlow, with the Ducks still riding the second place spot, and with Washington just a half step behind.

As Barlow rounded the first curve, it looked as if Steele might have already lost his gamble: the freshman fell behind the leaders, and suddenly the Ducks found themselves in fourth place again.

With 5,769 strong on their feet, Barlow came barreling down lane three neck-and-neck with Washington junior Alex Harcourt. For an instant, it looked as if Barlow might catch both Washington and USC at the line. Then, a foot from the finish, Barlow hurled himself over the line, his legs giving out as he collapsed and rolled in a heap on the track.

But Steele and his Ducks had done what they needed to do: Oregon finished in third place in 3:08.79. The second-place Huskies clocked in at 3:08.73, mere milliseconds ahead of the young Ducks.

'It was a tough decision and you second-guess yourself right up to the gun,' a relieved Steele said afterward. 'I just wanted to put them in a position to finish top three, and they did what they needed to do.'

Steele said the injured Alexander had been tasked with simply maintaining the Ducks' place to put Barlow in a position to stay with the leaders and challenge at the end.

'Chad held off Harcourt in an exciting race indoors in Seattle earlier this season,' Steele said. 'He's not going to run down anyone like Lionel Larry, but as long as we're in a good position when he gets the stick, I was pretty confident that he's not going to lose us any ground.'

Barlow ran the last leg in a season-best 46.90.

The Ducks' third-place 4x400m relay finish capped a successful weekend that saw six men and both relay teams progress to the NCAA Championships.

Ryan Brandel placed second in the javelin with a 218-3 mark, securing his first bid to the NCAA nationals. Brian Richotte won the hammer competition with a 221-6 effort, and will also make his first trip to nationals.

Other Ducks who managed to extend their post-seasons include Galen Rupp, who won the 5,000m in 14:08.03, Ashton Eaton, who placed fifth in the long jump with a personal best of 24-6 1/4, and Michael McGrath, who finished fifth in the 1,500m in 3:46.31. Freshman distance runner A.J. Acosta finished the 1,500m in ninth place (3:48.43), and could earn an at-large bid to Sacramento.

sloh@dailyemerald.com

(C) 2007 Oregon Daily Emerald via CSTV U-WIRE

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