Ordinarily, weekends at Dawg Sports are capped off by what we like to call the "Sunday summary," in which I recap briefly the most recent action in the Georgia Bulldogs’ non-revenue sports. This weekend, however, there is no need for such a generic posting, as only one Red and Black varsity squad remained in action this week, so I hereby bring the Classic City Canines’ 2011-’12 academic year to a close by wrapping up the Athenians’ track and field campaign, which concluded earlier today.
Despite what head coach Wayne Norton called a "pretty rough" start on Wednesday, Georgia had three top ten finishes and three first- or second-team All-Americans to show for the first day of the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, a state where folks do not appreciate, and cannot spell, Chick-fil-A (though these deficiencies prompted one of the great takedowns in the history of the blogosphere, so I suppose I’m grateful for the Big Ten’s pervasive ignorance).
All three Bulldog top ten finishes on Wednesday were delivered by underclasswomen making their respective first appearances at the NCAA Championships. Sophomore Megan Malasarte broke her own school record with what was then a career-best 2:04.18 time to come in tenth in the women’s 800-meter semifinals, while freshman Allison Updike claimed ninth place with a 158’8” javelin throw. The day’s top performer, though, was freshman Morgann Leleux, who turned in a runner-up 14’5.25” pole vault.
To that trio of top marks was added on Thursday Nikola Lomnicka’s seventh-place finish in the women’s hammer throw. In the final toss of the last meet of her collegiate career, the senior hurler unleashed a season-best 211’9” throw to notch her third straight first-team All-American performance, vaulting the Georgia women into a fifth-place tie at the midpoint.
The ladies slipped a bit on Friday, falling into a snarl at ninth, though Malasarte once more set a new Georgia record with a 2:03.57 time in the 800-meter run to come in seventh in the finals, and junior Saniel Atkinson-Grier shared sixth place with a personal-best 6’0” high jump. Both women became the first Athenians to become All-Americans in the respective events in at least five years. Meanwhile, the Bulldog men finally put their first points on the board on the meet’s penultimate afternoon when senior Aaron Evans earned first-team All-American honors with a seventh-place 1:46.66 finish in the men’s 800, whereas sophomore Justin Welch made second-team All-American with a 209’4” hammer throw to take ninth and wind up just three inches shy of adding to the gentlemen’s team tally.
The NCAA Championships, and the Georgia sports year, came to a close on Saturday, when Caleb Whitener made the All-American second team as the only Bulldog in competition on the final day. The sophomore managed only a 15th-place finish in his first NCAA outdoor finals after having previously strung together five straight personal bests in the shot put.
It was only appropriate, though, that the Red and Black track and field team would end its campaign in such a subdued fashion. The Georgia men could console themselves only with the meager achievement of having scored at 15 NCAA Outdoor Championships in a row, as their pitiful two points left them stranded in 64th place, while four SEC squads wound up in the top ten, including national champion Florida, but not counting third-place Texas A&M, which will join the league formally next month.
The Lady Bulldogs did better than their male counterparts, but they still failed to card a finish commensurate with their expectations. The Athenian women were one of six Southeastern Conference clubs to wrap up the spring in the top 25---seven, if the third-place distaff Aggies are factored into the final tally---but the Georgia females’ 21st-place, 14-point performance fell well shy of top-ranked Louisiana State’s title-worthy 76 points.
Afterward, Coach Norton remarked:
We definitely did not end the season the way we had planned or expected. This was a situation where we weren't able to do things that we're capable of and it's quite disappointing. I don't think we gave it our best shot at this meet. There were only a few bright spots for us and success won't come to you at this meet with that type of performance. But there's nothing we can do about it now but try and figure out what will improve our team finishes in the future.
Coach Norton, who has been the head coach at Georgia since 2000 and a member of the track and field staff in Athens since 1990, has guided his charges to a number of individual honors, but team titles have been rare. After two decades in the Classic City following a five-year stint as an assistant coach at Northern Arizona in the second half of the 1980s, upon what, precisely, will Coach Norton rely as he tries to figure out what will improve the Bulldogs’ team finishes in the future? Will whatever that is be enough in an increasingly competitive SEC that is turning out national champions and becoming more challenging with the addition of the NCAA top-three men’s and women’s track and field squads from College Station?
Having called for the firing of more than one Georgia head coach lately, I’m not going to begin the drumbeat for Wayne Norton’s ouster, but there currently is a prevailing culture of mediocrity pervading many teams in the Classic City, even those with several superb individual performers, and it is that mindset of tolerance for averageness that must be altered, by whatever means necessary, if Greg McGarity’s stewardship of our alma mater’s athletics program truly is to earn the adjective “extraordinary.” For now, most of the teams overseen in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall appear, like Wayne Norton’s track and field program, to be quite, and quite unsatisfactorily, ordinary.