Southeast athletes will have to run career times to make a splash at the NCAA championships.
While Miles Smith enters this week's NCAA championships as a solid contender for All-American status -- if not more -- Southeast Missouri State's other two entries in Sacramento, Calif., are definite underdogs.
But coach Joey Haines believes Alonzo Nelson in the 400-meter hurdles and the 1,600-meter relay team can still can make enough improvement to challenge for berths in the finals, which mean top-eight finishes and All-American honors.
"Alonzo has to run faster than he's run to get in the top eight, but he's capable of doing it," Haines said. "The relay also has to run faster to get in the top eight, but four guys can share that improvement, so I think they have a chance to do it."
Nelson, a junior from East St. Louis, Ill., finished seventh at the NCAA Mideast Regional on May 28 in Bloomington, Ind. That did not automatically qualify him for the national meet, but he earned an at-large berth based on his season-best time of 50.77 seconds -- a school record -- that ranks 18th nationally.
"I'm excited," said Nelson, who competes in the preliminaries Thursday night, with the semifinals Friday and finals Saturday. "It was a goal of mine to get to nationals, and I think I'm ready to run faster."
Said Haines of Nelson, who won both hurdles events at the Ohio Valley Conference outdoor meet: "Alonzo has kind of flown under the radar, but he's had a really good year. Hopefully he'll have a good [national] meet."
The 1,600 relay team of Nelson, freshman Chris Poindexter (McCluer North High School in St. Louis), junior Chaz Brown (Parkway North High School in St. Louis) and Smith (Riverview Gardens High School in St. Louis) also did not automatically qualify for nationals after placing sixth at the regional meet.
But the group's season-best time of 3:06.49 -- the second-fastest in school history -- earned an at-large berth as the nation's 16th-fastest time. The 1,600 relay preliminaries are Thursday night, with the finals Saturday.
"Putting a relay together to compete at the national level is tough, because you need four very good runners," Haines said. "We'll need to run in the 3:04 range to place, but we're capable of running that fast."
Haines is particularly pleased for Brown, a two-time state high school champion in the 800 who came in with high expectations but has been hampered by injuries ever since entering Southeast.
"He's shown a lot of perseverance, and he's finally healthy," Haines said. "Usually guys that were so successful in high school, when something happens, they fold the tent, but it's neat to see him reach the level we all thought he was going to reach."
Brown has battled knee, hamstring and shin problems over the past several years, with the knee ailment requiring surgery. Finally healthy, he finished second in the OVC 800 in addition to running on the relay that captured the OVC title.
"It was very frustrating, and for a while I didn't think I would even get back to this point, but I'm actually doing better now than I thought I would," Brown said. "For a while, I just thought I was wasting coach's time, so this is nice.
"And hopefully next year I can get to nationals in the 800, which is my goal."