BIRMINGHAM, AL -- Day 2 of the DI Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championships was nothing short of exhilarating. It would take every last event to decide the 2016 National Champion, as it came down to Arkansas and Oregon in the 4 x 400 Meter Relay. Despite Arkansas finishing slightly better in the race, Oregon narrowly edge out Arkansas 53 to 50 to return to the winner's circle.
The day began with the Georgia Bulldogs in a commanding lead. Hoping to make the most of their field participants, they took to the high jump, an event that pentathlon National Champion and record holder Kendall Williams cleared a height of 1.86 the day prior. Unfortunately, Williams would not clear the first height and could gain no points.
In fact, three of the four Bulldogs in the event failed to gain a point, although junior jumper Tatiana Gusin finished second behind KSU’s Akela Jones, who set the NCAA record in the high jump on Friday. Despite lengthening their lead with eight more points, they left the door open for Oregon and Arkansas to begin their comeback.
Both teams would slowly chip away. Neither were running away with a landslide of first place finishes, however it was a careful and methodical comeback. Take Oregon’s sophomore sprinter Hannah Cunliffe for example. Cunliffe ran two strong races, finishing second in the 60 meter with a 7.12 time and third in the 200 meter behind a 22.85 time.
“I’m happy,” Cunliffe said. “I knew that we were cutting it close with the points. I just wanted to go out there and help my team out. I felt like I could have done a little better job, but I did my best so I’m happy.”
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Arkansas, too, would fight back, however they were able to make a big jump behind the high-flying heroics of freshman Lexi Weeks, who would set a meet record in winning the national pole vault championship at a height of 4.63 meters.
“Coming into today, I felt a lot more relaxed, not as nervous as I was two weeks ago at SEC,” Lexi Weeks said. “I just wanted to go out and have fun. I’ve been doing well all season so I just wanted to carry the momentum in. I wanted to take one jump at a time.
"To go out there and do my best against them and then to come out as a freshman and win the whole thing was great."
She would get help on the scoreboard by her twin sister Tori, who added three points to Arkansas’ team total by clearing 4.30.
“Not many people get to experience competing at this level with their best friend,” Lexi said. “We calm each other down, give each other words of encouragement. Having her their just gives me confidence.”
Georgia would not go away easily however. Bulldogs sophomore Keturah Orji — who finished fourth on Friday in the long jump — would break her own facility record with a triple jump of 14.12, briefly bumping Georgia back to the top of the standings.
“I’m really excited,” Orji said. “I came in with my goal to score 15 points and I achieved that. I’m very happy with that as well as setting a PR in the triple jump.”
Inevitably, it would come down to the 4 x 400 relay, an event that Oregon and Arkansas would find themselves in the same heat. Oregon — anchored by Raevyn Rogers who had just won the 800 meter — had a five point lead and would just have to hang tight with Arkansas for a chance at overall victory.
“Everything is so incredible," Rogers said. "My team is amazing. I couldn’t have won the 800 without my two running partners. My whole team is really supportive. We put in hard work in practice as a team in order to get the best out of what we have today. I couldn’t be any prouder of my team and our coaches for supporting each other the whole way.”
Arkansas senior Taylor Ellis-Watson — who was earlier disappointed with her second place finish in the 400 meter to Texas’ Courtney Okolo — would help Arkansas rise victorious in the relay. They would edge out Oregon by .12 of a second.
“We were really going for the team title,” Ellis-Watson said. “We got second overall. We went out and our motivation was to beat Oregon and that’s what we did in the 4 x 400.”
“I wish I was in the same heat,” Ellis-Watson explained of her 400 meter. “I couldn’t really go off anyone’s time and I felt like I was running alone most of the time. I just have to commend her, she’s a really good runner. I left it all on the track, though, I have no regrets.”
Despite, Arkansas strong finish, it simply wasn’t enough. Oregon rose the 2016 Indoor National Champions, a feat they have now accomplished six times in the past seven years.
“The thing that makes this group special is that we score points all across the board,” Oregon head coach Robert Johnson told the filled to capacity Birmingham Crossplex. “We have a phenomenal staff, its amazing. For all of them to contribute to a championship like this makes it special.”
Robert Johnson had his hands full accepting the trophy. Oregon’s Men’s Track and Field team would also take home the 2016 title, a feat he accomplished with the Ducks in 2014.