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Merritt fifth in NAIA 400

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Tiwana Merritt never ran an open 400-meter dash in her life until two weeks ago.

By Wednesday night, the Southern Oregon University sophomore from Valdez, Alaska, was an All-American in the 400.

Merritt placed fifth in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics finals in 55.58 seconds, bettering her own school record of 56.30 set in Tuesday's semifinals at Blum Stadium.

It was the best-ever finish for an SOU women in the event.

She ran perfect, said SOU track and field coach Dale Fisher. She was very patient. She was in Lane 7 and the eventual winner (Lucyann Richards of Life, 53.55) came screaming by her. But she ran her own race and didn't try to do too much.

Merritt's target for the first 200 meters was 27 seconds and 29 for the homestretch.

She ran right at that with a 26.88 and 28.7 in the second 200, Fisher said.

Although Merritt had run 400s in relays, she usually ran 100s, 200s and long jumped.

We ran her in the Oregon Twilight on May 15 and she qualified for the (NAIA) meet, Fisher said. It was just the fourth time she had run an open 400. It's truly amazing what she has accomplished the past two years ... considering she didn't run track in high school.

Junior Mat Davis of Medford placed seventh in the men's 400. He was clocked at 48.74.

He was in a pretty awkward situation, Fisher said. He wanted to run conservatively and went out too slow. He was in Lane 7 and couldn't see anybody. He feels badly, not running a very good tactical race.

But he's going to be back another year and he's pretty motivated by the fact that he went out a little too slow.

Two other Raiders competed in the third day of the national meet. Junior Nels Hage failed to make the finals in the men's discus final with two fouls and a toss of 138-10. He placed 23rd.

Senior Rebekah Julian, attempting her first marathon, dropped out after 16 miles because of stomach pains. She was in fifth place at the time.

There was a 14,000-acre brush fire nearby and it was very smoky, Fisher said. Even people standing around were having breathing problems.

Life University of Georgia won the men's championship, while McKendree College of Illinois won the women's crown. Southern Oregon's women placed 18th with 15 points, the best since 1994. The men's team was 24th.

South Medford graduate Ian Strauss placed seventh in the discus with a 153-4 effort for George Fox. North Medford graduate George Wheeler, competing for Westmont College, threw the javelin 175-9 for 18th place.