COLLEGE STATION, Texas - League titles by Sam Kendricks in the pole vault and the distance medley relay team were among the highlights for Ole Miss at the 2014 Southeastern Conference Indoor Championships, which wrapped up Saturday at the Gilliam Indoor Track & Field Stadium on the campus of Texas A&M.
The No. 20 nationally ranked Rebel men had a phenomenal final day, paced by the veteran consistency of Kendricks and the youthful heroics of mile runner Sean Tobin.
In addition to the two SEC titles, freshmen Tobin (mile) and Jalen Miller (60 meters) also placed top three in their events to show that the Rebels are a program to contend with for years to come. Ole Miss finished seventh in the men's team standings with 36 points.
"I feel like we made good strides today as we continue to grow and develop," said Ole Miss head coach Brian O'Neal. "Both of our squads are young, and we're cutting our teeth in the toughest league in the NCAA."
Kendricks, a junior from Oxford, Miss., won his first SEC title after coming oh-so-close in his past four attempts (indoor and outdoor). He and Arkansas' Andrew Irwin both cleared 18-2, but neither could get over the bar at 18-5.25, and Kendricks claimed victory and 10 team points by having fewer misses. It was the second SEC indoor pole vault title in school history (Baker Vinci, 1985).
Kendricks added an SEC title to his career hardware that already includes an NCAA outdoor title and three All-America accolades.
"Everybody looks for great things at the SEC Championship," Kendricks said after his win. "Being able to come out here on this day and make it work is a reward in itself. Being able to make it work in such a way that you win, after coming so close in the past, is more gratifying than I can even put into words."
"Winning an SEC championship was a big deal for Sam," O'Neal said. "That was something he targeted this year. And there's not too many accomplishments out there that Sam hasn't already achieved. He loves representing Ole Miss, and I'm proud of him."
Tobin, a freshman from Clonmel, Ireland, ran an amazing 1,600-meter anchor leg, sprinting past runners from Florida and Texas A&M on the last lap, to carry the Rebels to their first ever distance medley relay victory at an SEC Championship. Fellow freshmen Robert Domanic (1,200-meter leg) and Will Spiers (800-meter leg) teamed with senior Montez Griffin (400-meter leg) to score 10 team points and show that this unit may be tough to beat for years to come. Their time of 9:39.54 ranks second-best in school history and was dangerously close to the SEC meet record of 9:39.06 set by Alabama in 2011.
"I'm proud of how those young men competed," O'Neal said. "Domanic gave us the lead, and Montez did a great job of continuing to keep us right there in the lead. Will did a great job against some tremendous 800-meter runners. And then Tobin was Tobin, running 4:01 at the end to seal it for us. They ran with a lot of heart. It was a great effort."
"It means a lot (to win an SEC title)," said Griffin. "Before I came here I told myself, `It's your last indoor meet. Leave it all out there on the track.'"
Tobin also finished second in the mile with a time of 4:06.14 and scored eight points for the Rebels. His runner-up finish at the SEC indoor meet is the best ever by an Ole Miss athlete in the mile. Kentucky's Matt Hillenbrand won in 4:03.80, and Ole Miss' Daniel Bulmer turned in a ninth-place showing in 4:11.35 to just missing scoring points for the team.
Also making his SEC debut, Miller finished third in a very tight 60-meter final and scored six team points for Ole Miss. His time of 6.675, rounded up to 6.68, was just .002 seconds behind the runner-up (Florida's Hugh Graham Jr.) and .02 seconds from the winner (Alabama's Diondre Batson). The Tunica, Miss., native was the only freshman in the eight-man final.
"I was impressed with Sean and Jalen performing well in their first championships," O'Neal said. "They handled the pressure of the situation and put up some big points for the Rebels."
Among the eight-man and 10-man finals on Saturday (60m, 200m, 400m, 800m, mile, 60m hurdles), only six finalists were freshmen. And only one other besides Tobin or Miller placed as high as third in his race (Arkansas' Omar McLeod was runner-up in the 60-meter hurdles).
On Friday, sophomore Onyi Afoaku scored a point in the men's weight throw with an eighth-place finish. The Bloomington, Ind., native tossed a personal-best throw of 63-2 that moved him into a tie for second-best in school history. On Saturday, he added a personal best in the shot put with a heave of 57-9.75 that placed him 11th on the day. He is second-best in school history there, too, just behind the all-time best of 58-1.25 by Derek McGuire in 2006.
The top Ole Miss performers on the women's side Saturday were sophomore Mary Alex England and senior Kayleigh Skinner in the 5,000 meters. Both set personal bests and rank in the top four in school history with their times of 17:06.76 and 17:21.05, respectively.
"Sometimes the scores don't indicate the hard work and efforts that our student-athletes are putting in, but I'm confident that they will soon," O'Neal said.
Arkansas captured the men's team title, while Florida claimed the women's crown.
Ole Miss will now await word on which athletes have qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships, which take place March 14-15 in Albuquerque, N.M.
On winning the SEC title ... "Everybody looks for great things at the SEC Championship. Being able to come out here on this day and make it work is a reward in itself. Being able to make it work in such a way that you win, after coming so close in the past, is more gratifying than I can even put into words. And I didn't get here alone. I didn't buy the plane ticket, coach myself or drive the bus. I couldn't ask for anything more. I didn't actually get the height I wanted, but you can't second guess yourself at all. That's crazy."
On earning 10 points for the team ... "I hope this year that my team has looked at me as a steadfast competitor. I wanted to get on the scoreboard for the Rebels."
On plans/mindset for the NCAA Championships ... "Compete and win."
On the race ... "I'm very disappointed in my result. I came here to win the race and it didn't work out for me. I was back and forth during the race and when it came down to the end, I didn't have the kick to finish."
On his plans going forward ... "I plan to come back and focus on outdoor and not let this happen again."
On his expectations for the race ... "Going into the race, I wanted to win but I knew it wasn't going to be given to me."
On competing at SECs ... "It's an honor to compete in the SEC. The best are in this conference and that's why I came to Ole Miss. The talent showed itself today."
On the plan for what's next ... "The mindset is to keep doing the same thing and don't change up anything. If I listen to what my coaches and my trainers say, I should have a good outcome at nationals."
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