When Terry Gatson’s back cramped up less than 10 meters from his exchange with Omar Brown and he fell while dropping the baton in the 4x200-meter relay, that rare outcome was all but assured.
Earlier in the day, the Razorbacks 4x mile team was smoked by 15 seconds by Michigan, only the fourth time in the last 23 years Arkansas hasn’t won the event.
The capper was Arkansas’ third runner-up finish to Michigan in the 4x800 with an effort that left coach John McDonnell in a mood as dark as the clouds that hovered over Franklin Field dropping sporadic rain over 44,612 fans on the last day of the 111th Penn Relays.
Michigan won the 4x800 in 7:22.59 to Arkansas’ 7:26.43.
Arkansas, winners of 41 of the mammoth Wagon Wheel trophies since 1983, will have to wait until next year to add more.
The only other year Arkansas hasn’t won at Penn since 1982 was 2001 when McDonnell took his team to the Drake Relays in Iowa.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting second at the Penn Relays, but the 4x mile and the 4x800, we should have run better,” McDonnell said. “I was not happy with the way we competed. We don’t have a guy that’s stepping up and taking control as a leader. That scares me a little bit.”
Arkansas did earn a Penn Relays title with Eric Brown taking first in the javelin, but that was one of only a couple of highlights of the weekend for the No. 1 Razorbacks with the Southeastern Conference Championships coming up in less than two weeks.
In addition, Jaanus Uudmae finished second in the college men’s triple jump with a leap of 52-1.
Michigan’s Nate Brannen, a two-time NCAA champion in the 800, anchored both of the Wolverines’ wins Saturday and brought home a collegiate record in the 4x mile with their 16:04.54 to surpass the previous of 16:07.96 held by Arkansas since 1999.
Arkansas senior James Hatch, whose lifetime best of 1:47.4 came with a runner-up finish over Brannen at the NCAA Indoor Championships last month, anchored the 4x800 with a 1:50 split that left McDonnell unhappy at best.
“A 1:46 would have been awfully close to (Brannen),” McDonnell said. “That’s what you got to do against an exceptional runner. You have to do exceptional things and Hatch is good enough to run a 1:46 flat. He ran a 1:50. That’s not going to cut it.”
Arkansas pulled its 4x100-meter relay to focus on the 4x200 and a possible shot at the collegiate record, but the Razorbacks never got the stick to anchor and NCAA 100 champion Tyson Gay.
Gatson has been bothered by back spasms since the Mt. SAC Relays two weeks ago and he stumbled just as Brown started to move.
“Omar left on time, the hand was there, (Gatson) just cramped up,” said a disappointed sprints coach Lance Brauman, who was more worried about Gatson’s health heading into SECs. “We’ve been shooting for a 4x2 all year and we just didn’t get the stick around.”
Brown, who followed leadoff leg Wallace Spearmon Jr., threw his hand back and the faltering Gatson tried to make the pass but fell hard to the track as the baton rolled away.
“Gosh, if we didn’t have bad luck we’d have no luck at all,” McDonnell said. “That was disappointing because we could have won that. We should have won the 4x8, we should have won the 4x2. The other two (distance medley and 4x mile), I don’t think so.”
McDonnell was particularly upset with David Wittenmeyer, a 400-meter hurdler who ran leadoff on the 4x800.
Wittenmeyer got tripped up at the beginning and didn’t answer the slow pace of the first lap.
“You have to realize, ‘I’m jogging. This is an 800. I’m not supposed to feel this good,’” McDonnell said. “He should have got out and got up there. We would have been right in the hunt and we could have won that thing.”
Harun Iman showed some of the guts McDonnell was looking for by blistering through a 50-second opening lap of his 800 to get Arkansas from nearly last to fourth place with a team-best 1:49 split.
Brian Roe showed similar courage and got Hatch into striking distance, but he couldn’t close the gap with Brannen running his third race in two days.
“The poor guy (Iman) can only run about 49 for a quarter,” McDonnell said. “I wish a lot of other guys would do that. He’s got a lot of heart. So does Roe. Another tough kid.
“We have to get tougher if we’re going to win the conference and there’s just two weeks left.”