Men’s relay provides wild finish to final day of NCAA East Preliminaries

JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Despite having to run Saturday without injured two-time All-America sprinter Micah Larkins at the NCAA East Preliminary Round track and field meet, Northwestern State’s 4×100 meter relay squad secured a very unlikely third berth in four years at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

Then, it didn’t. A winning Purdue team that was initially disqualified successfully protested and was reinstated, and painfully, NSU’s bubble burst despite a remarkable time.

In an unbelievable underdog showing, the Demons’ quartet of Javin Arrington, Tre’Darius Carr, Tremayne Flagler and Eddie Clarke ran 39.42, a season best for any NSU foursome, the fourth-fastest 4×100 recorded in school history, and importantly Saturday, the 12th-fastest time in the field of 24.

Initially, and ultimately, it wasn’t quite fast enough.

With Kentucky clinching an automatic qualifying spot by coming in third in the second heat, despite the Wildcats finishing with the 14th fastest mark (39.56) overall, the Demons were knocked down to 13th and out of the top-12 national semifinalists. However, following a protest and review, it was determined Purdue (38.75) had committed a violation and was disqualified.

The Boilermakers immediately filed a protest of the decision, and after more deliberation, were reinstated, denying NSU’s return to the national meet. The Demons finished just 0.01 slower than the official final qualifiers, Clemson (39.41), which ran in the same third heat that NSU did. The Tigers were fifth and the Demons sixth in the fastest of the three heats, topped in that race by Purdue, LSU (39.04), North Carolina State (39.17) and Western Kentucky (39.22).

“I’m so excited for these guys,” said associate head coach and sprints coach Adam Pennington. “There aren’t many schools in the country who can have their top two guys go down and still run a phenomenal time. This time would have been good enough the last five years, but the competition this year was especially stiff. I’m proud of how they rose to the challenge.”

None of NSU’s nine other contestants on the final day of the East Round came nearly as close to reaching the national championships June 5-8 in Austin, Texas. Two Lady Demons, NCAA Indoor long jump champion Jasmyn Steels and pole vaulter Reagan Darbonne, advanced in earlier competition and will complete June 6.

“It was a good day, but a tough day too,” said head coach Mike Heimerman. “I’m very proud of these coaches and athletes. They worked all year for their opportunity and most of the time they capitalized. We always preach for the next person to be ready to go, and the men’s 4×1 team did just that. I couldn’t be more proud of this program and the people we have competing for us.”

“The relay team was missing its two fastest runners (Larkins and Kie’Ave Harry) and still ran very fast,” said Heimerman. “From being one spot away from qualifying, to last spot in, to out again, was really rough on them. Ultimately, I think it affected Tremayne in the hurdles too.”

An hour after the 4×100 dramatics, Flagler returned for the 110 hurdles quarterfinals where he ran a 14.04 to place 21st. The senior ended his NSU career with the 2019 Southland Championship in the 110 hurdles and is second all-time in NSU history after running a 13.87 in the 2019 SLC Championship prelims, only 0.01 off Joe Rhyans’ record set in 1993.

The Lady Demons’ 4×100 relay team also ran a season best that was the fourth-fastest mark in program history, but didn’t contend for a return to the national meet after last summer’s appearance. Natashia “Speedy” Jackson — the only returning honorable mention All-American from 2018 — teamed with Ona Giles, Kimani Evans and Marjorie Thompson for a season-best 44.95 that placed 21st.

“The women’s relay had a horrible second exchange and still ran the fastest time of the year,” said Heimerman. “Had the exchange been better, it might have been a school record (topping 44.68 in 2000).”

“The exchange was so bad, they actually came to a complete stop,” said Pennington. “If the handoffs would have been smooth, they would have shattered the school record.”

Three Lady Demons participated in the triple jump, NSU’s first action of the day.

Having already qualified for a spot at the NCAA Championships on Thursday, Steels placed 22nd in the triple (41-5 ¼). She was followed by Lauren Clarke (41st,39-10) and Ariel Watson (43rd, 39-7 ¾) in their first appearances at the East Round.

“Jasmyn had a very small foot foul that could’ve been a great jump,” said Heimerman. “The other two girls gained a lot of experience and should be back here next year.”

Demons’ junior Quindarrius Thompson struggled in the men’s triple, fouling on his first two attempts but landing his third with a leap of 48-5 ½ to place 38th.

NSU sent a total of 19 competitors to the East Round, the second most in school history behind 20 last year. The count led the Southland Conference and was second in Louisiana only to LSU.