Florida went to Des Moines already with three strikes against it. It’s best sprinter, Jeff Demps, who won the 60 meters this spring to give the Gators the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field championship, was out with a hamstring injury. It’s top decathlete, Gray Horn, suspended from the team following a DUI arrest, also wouldn’t be there. And his 4x100 relay team? It failed to qualify.

But Mike Holloway was not stressed. He felt blessed. His teams lost the outdoor championships the past three years by a total of five points when they had better shots than this year. The difference, was a chat with his dad and a very specific prayer about winning the championship and an outstanding finish in the final event of the meet to earn the Gators their first ever NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championship.

“I talk to my father (a Columbus, Ohio pastor) on Friday morning,” Holloway said. “I talked about the fact that we’ve been so close. My dad has always taught me to be more specific in prayer when I pray. He just told me to remain humble and to remember who I am and how I conduct my business and I reminded my kids of that.

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“My prayer was for God to allow us to be at our best when it counted the most. He said that’s all you have to do. You’ve asked God for what you want, you just leave it there and go out and do what you do. That’s what I did and did not worry after that.”

Well, maybe just a little.

“No matter who you are, when you come that close so many times as we have, there’s a little bit of doubt that creeps into the back of your mind. But I’m a man of faith. I felt like when it was our turn, God would allow us to win a championship. I think the biggest thing for me was to see the joy in the athletes and my assistant coaches and everybody else associated with the program that made it special for me.”

And it validated the belief he had in his team. Despite the losses Holloway was confident the Gators had enough to withstand the losses of Demps, Horn and the relay team. He wasn’t focused on what he didn’t have but felt rather on the talent and the will power of the ones who would be competing.

“We never thought we weren’t going to win,” Holloway said. “We talked about it after the region meet, and told the guys if they trust and believe that they were still the best team there. I thought that we were capable of getting 55-60 points with the team we had there. We felt like we were going to score in the long jump. I thought we were going to do a little better in the javelin. We still came up with 50 points.

“Sometimes you have to go through a little adversity to get to the top. And we definitely had our share of adversity the last three years with injuries. Us bonding together as a team and trusting and believing what we do here that got us over the hump this year.”

If you wanted drama it was all there as it was down to Florida and LSU for the title. The Gators knew where they stood and accepted a huge challenge. As the meet unfolded Saturday, they saw where LSU won the 4x100 relay.

Tony McQuay (the 2011 U.S. champion and 2012 NCAA Outdoor champion in the 400 meters) was getting treatment on the table when LSU won and gave a smile to Holloway. They knew.

“I kind of smiled (and said), ‘It’s going to come down to the 4x400. The big thing for us was Eddie Lovett running the hurdles. Coming into the meet, most didn’t have him making the finals. Then he makes the finals and goes out there and gets fifth. That gave a chance to win the meet because now we’re only two points down to LSU.

“I said guys we win the 4x400 we win the meet. Tony McQuay smiled, Dedric Dukes and Hugh Graham said, OK. Leo Seymore nodded. That’s all I got from them. I didn’t say another word. Those four guys work hard together daily. They really trust and believe in each other. It’s a race where they felt like they were very controlled, Hugh Graham, the freshman said, ‘We’re going to run three flat in the finals.’ I said, Whoa, let’s not talk about that. Then Tony said, ‘That’s right. We don’t talk about the score. Let’s just do it.”
Boy did they ever. Florida won the 4x400 relay with a 3:00.22, the fastest time in that event in the world this year.

“We wanted to be at our best when it counted the most, and we were,” Holloway said. “Losing Jeff, losing Gray and losing the relay honestly, that affected our mindset a little bit. But we feel like we do a great job getting our athletes ready for the championship race. And we also feel like we do a great job of staying focused on Florida. It is a testament to our kids.”