EUGENE — Oregon coach Robert Johnson gathered together the members of his women’s 4x400-meter relay team before they headed onto the track for Saturday’s NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship finale at Hayward Field and delivered a simple, yet desperate message.
“We can’t be second,” he said.
The team of freshman Makenzie Dunmore, snake-bit junior sprinter Deajah Stevens, fifth-year senior transfer Elexis Guster and incomparable junior Raevyn Rogers delivered a victory and secured the Ducks’ place in history.
It was an epic ending to a season-long quest to win the NCAA’s first Triple Crown, with the outdoor title the final piece for Oregon, which already had won national championships in cross country and indoor track during the 2016-17 season.
The Ducks needed every one of the 10 points they earned with their win in the 4x400 to pass Georgia for the title as they edged the Bulldogs 64-62.2.
“We have to win,” Johnson said he told his relay team. “I hate to put this on you but I also want to put this on you because I wouldn’t want it to come down to any other four group of girls on our team. And for them to rise up and do what they did, I told them ‘We’re built for this. We’ve been built for this all year long, when we go out and run those hills on Saturday morning when it’s cold and it’s raining, we’re built for this moment and we’re ready.’”
Rogers closed the deal for the Ducks, running the final leg in 49.77 seconds as they finished in a collegiate, field and meet record 3 minutes, 23.13 seconds, fending off second-place USC by .22 of a second.
“This meet was not given to us,” said Rogers, who also became the first women in NCAA history to win three straight outdoor titles in the 800. “This whole season was not given to us. The season wasn’t given to cross country, it wasn’t given to the indoor women’s team, it wasn’t given to the outdoor women’s team. We’ve had to continuously work.”
A total of 44,061 people attended the four-day meet that featured four collegiate records, five NCAA championship meet records and three Hayward Field records. Oregon’s dramatic come-from-behind win was the perfect ending for the home team, which also endured some setbacks during the afternoon.
None was more significant than when Stevens, the favorite in the 200, tripped and fell near the end of her race and didn’t score for the Ducks. It also put her role in the 4x400 in doubt, if only temporarily. But 45 minutes after her tumble, the 2016 Olympic finalist was ready to run again.
“Before even talking about running the 4x400, it was basically just see where she’s at and how she’s doing and her health,” Johnson said. “Once she gave me the green light on that, other than a bunch of scrapes and bruises, we sprayed some antiseptic on it and put a patch here or there, and then she was like ‘I want to do it,’ and we were out.”
Oregon’s team title was its second in three years and third overall. One look at the roster and it’s hard to envision the Ducks’ success ending any time soon.
Of the 14 athletes who competed in the championship meet, only three were seniors and they accounted for seven points combined. Sasha Wallace was sixth in the 100 hurdles, Guster was sixth in the 400, and Samantha Nadel was eighth in the 5,000.
Of course, Rogers and Stevens have pro careers waiting for them if they decide to leave early, as does sophomore sprinter Ariana Washington, the 2016 NCAA champ in the 100 and 200.
Stevens has already said she’ll make a decision soon, though it might not come until after next week’s U.S. Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Sacramento. Rogers said the same Saturday.
“Honestly, I haven’t really talked about it because as you guys know, I’m still in school, too, so that’s been on my mind,” Rogers said. “I just wanted to make sure I focused on each moment for what it was. Now that my college outdoor season is done, I focus on (qualifying for the World Outdoor Championships). Once I have an open spot, I’ll be able to sit and think about some things, but as of now, I’m just taking every moment and appreciating it.”
It’s a different situation for the Oregon men, who are in rebuild mode after finishing ninth with 19?1/2 points, their lowest point total since scoring 19?1/4 in 2003.
Oregon won national titles in 2014 and 2015, and was fourth last season.
“We had a low point in our men’s program (Friday), and I’m assuming at some point in time the balloons have to come back down to earth and we’re not always going to be in contention,” Johnson said. “As much as we’re going to try and not let that happen. … It’s just the law of averages.”
It didn’t help the Ducks that star senior distance runner Edward Cheserek missed the meet with a lower back injury, and that several others underperformed or didn’t make it out of the NCAA West Preliminary meet.
Along with Cheserek, Oregon also loses six of the 12 men who competed at the NCAA meet, including sprinter Kyree King and 400 specialist Marcus Chambers, who accounted for 13 of the Ducks’ points and were half of the school-record setting 4x100 team that also finished sixth.
The one returning individual NCAA scorer is junior Cole Walsh, who tied for fifth in the pole vault.