Southeast's thrilling track meet win left impression

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I never thought I would say this, but one of the most exciting sports events I've covered in some time did not involve a basketball, football or baseball.

Forgive me for previously being among those guys who figured the most thrilling athletic competitions always centered on one of those mainstream sports.

But after witnessing last weekend's Ohio Valley Conference outdoor track and field championships in Cape Girardeau, I can truly say I no longer hold that opinion.

Many of you probably read about what transpired in the March 7 edition of the Southeast Missourian, but for those who didn't, I'll sum things up.

Host Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Illinois waged a tight two-team battle in the men's division, with the lead going back and forth during much of Saturday's final day of competition.

Adding to the drama was energetic meet announcer Ron Hines -- Southeast's sports information director -- giving play-by-play descriptions of various races while also constantly updating the team standings.

Suddenly, Eastern Illinois appeared to have taken control with a strong showing in the pole vault -- the third-to-last event -- as the Panthers surged ahead of the Redhawks by 13 points.

When Southeast coach Joey Haines stopped by the press box, you could sense he didn't feel all that optimistic about the Redhawks' chances of catching the Panthers --although I do remember Haines saying, in true Yogi Berra fashion, that it's not over until it's over.

Haines knew Southeast likely would win the meet's final event, the 1,600-meter relay, in which Eastern Illinois was ranked third. If form held, that meant the Redhawks would score 10 points to six for the Panthers.

But for the 1,600 relay to mean anything regarding the team title, the Redhawks had to somehow make up at least nine points in the next-to-last event, the 5,000 meters -- even though the Panthers had one of the OVC's top 5,000 performers in Brad Butler.

Butler, however, appeared spent after competing in several other races during the meet, and he did not place.

Meanwhile, Southeast's Kevin McNab and Kirk Nesbit finished second and fourth, giving the Redhawks 13 crucial points -- and pulling them even with EIU.

All of a sudden the Abe Stuber Complex was buzzing as Southeast athletes and fans sensed what was ready to happen.

Barring a major upset -- or a disqualification -- the Redhawks' superior 1,600 relay unit was about to clinch the team championship.

And that's exactly what transpired, as Southeast won the relay by more than 6 seconds to give the Redhawks their second consecutive OVC outdoor men's title by the slimmest of margins -- four points.

As Southeast athletes and some of their supporters celebrated around the track, I remember thinking how big a kick I had gotten out of witnessing what had just transpired.

I'm not saying that track and field is going to surpass the big three on my list of favorite sports any time soon -- but it certainly won't take a back seat, that's for sure.

Haines, his assistants and their athletes deserve all the kudos in the world for what they have accomplished.

While Southeast's men captured their second straight OVC outdoor championship, the women claimed their fourth consecutive outdoor title -- winning by more than 30 points -- and their seventh straight conference crown overall, including the last three indoor titles.

Southeast track and field has turned into some kind of a dynasty in the OVC, and Haines has built a remarkable program since coming to Southeast in the early 1980s.

I've got to give it up for Eugene Amano, the former Southeast football standout who graduated Saturday.

After Amano played his final season at Southeast in 2003, he left school to concentrate on training in order to try and make the NFL.

It's a common occurrence for college athletes who have a realistic chance of playing at their sport's highest level to put aside their academics for a while in order to give it their best shot.

And you've got to say Amano made the right decision. Not only was he taken in the seventh round of the 2004 NFL draft, he made the league and will soon be entering his third season as an offensive lineman with the Tennessee Titans.

But where Amano's story is different from a lot of athletes is that he never forget about the reason he came to Southeast in the first place -- to get an education and receive his diploma.

Amano, a criminal justice major, was able to fulfill his academic requirements at Southeast -- he needed 27 more hours when he left school in 2003 -- largely through taking online courses in his football offseasons, along with independent study work and an internship.

The result is that he proudly walked down the aisle at the Show Me Center on Saturday along with the other Southeast graduates.

If Amano goes on to have a long and successful NFL career -- he appears well on his way -- he might just earn enough money where he'll never have to get a real job if he doesn't want to. But Amano felt it was important to finish up his degree no matter what the future might hold for him.

Now that's a feel-good story if ever I've heard one.

Way to go, Eugene.

If you're a Southeast baseball fan, are you like me in wondering why the company that hired Andy Johnson wouldn't cut him a little slack and allow him to finish up his senior season before going to work?

For those who don't know the story, Johnson is Southeast's senior designated hitter who was a full-time pitcher before arm problems ended his career on the mound after last season.

Johnson stayed with the Redhawks, worked on his hitting and got his chance midway through this year when Southeast's offense was floundering. He turned into the Redhawks' top power hitter with a team-high six home runs in something of a true Roy Hobbs-like scenario.

Johnson, who has completed his degree requirements at Southeast, accepted a job with Excel, a distribution company in Minneapolis, Minn. Excel required him to report Monday or someone else would be hired for the position.

So Johnson is done playing baseball for the Redhawks, as he is already back in his home state of Minnesota preparing for his new job.

You sure can't fault the young man, because he reportedly will make in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year in his new gig. It would be hard to pass that up under any circumstances, as Southeast coach Mark Hogan was quick to point out.

Still, without knowing the particulars, it would have been nice if Johnson's new bosses had kept the job waiting for him as he played the final few weeks of his senior campaign.

The Southeast softball team finished with a 28-24 record for its first winning season since 2000, and also its most victories since 2000.

Considering the Redhawks had few key seniors this year, there should be plenty of optimism for the future.

But I'm sure the way the campaign ended will leave something of a sour taste in the Redhawks' mouths.

Southeast was at one point rolling along at 27-12 overall and 14-3 in OVC play while challenging for first place.

But a 10-game losing streak relegated the Redhawks to fifth in the final conference standings, then they went out fairly quickly in the league tournament by dropping two of three.

All told, the Redhawks ended the season losing 12 of their final 13 games.

If nothing else, I'm sure the disappointing finish will serve as extra motivation for the returning Redhawks.

Usually when a college head coach is let go, the assistants are left scrambling to find work in their field -- and often times they can't, at least not right away.

That, however, was not the case with the three members of former Southeast men's basketball coach Gary Garner's staff as all will remain in Division I.

Ronnie Dean and Toby Lane were both retained by new Redhawks' coach Scott Edgar, while Robert Guster landed at Texas-San Antonio.

All three are genuinely good guys and I'm really glad that things worked out well for them.

Here's also hoping that things work out nicely for Garner -- which I'm sure they will -- whether or not he decides to re-enter the coaching ranks.

I had no idea that Southeast women's basketball assistant Lisa Pace had been battling skin cancer for the last three years until Redhawks' coach B.J. Smith happened to mention it to me the other day.

Here's wishing her all the best as she fights the disease.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: