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EUGENE, Ore. – Senior Vernon Norwood spearheaded LSU's charge to a fourth-place team finish at the 2015 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships by completing his national championship sweep in the 400-meter dash and anchoring the Tigers to the title in the 4x400-meter relay in Friday's men's finale at Hayward Field.
Already the NCAA Indoor Champion at 400 meters to kick start his senior season, Norwood blew away the field in Friday's 400-meter final as he completed his NCAA title sweep in 45.10 seconds for LSU's first victory of the afternoon. He became just the second Tiger to be crowned NCAA Outdoor Champion in the 400 meters, joining the great Xavier Carter in 2006.
Norwood then returned to the track to lead the Tigers to the 4x400-meter relay title with a 44.97-second anchor leg as they edged the Florida Gators at the finish line in a winning 3 minutes, 1.93 seconds.
It proved to be the catalyst in LSU overtaking the USC Trojans for the fourth-place team trophy in the final standings as the Tigers piled up 45 points on the final day of the men's competition at this year's championship in Eugene. They clinched a top-five team finish for the 14th time in 16 seasons while extending their NCAA-leading streak to 18-straight years with a top-10 national finish in the men's field.
The Oregon Ducks defended their men's team championship with a winning total of 85 points, while the Florida Gators followed well back in second place with 56 points and the Arkansas Razorbacks rounded out each of the four team trophy places in third place with 53 points for the meet. LSU edged ahead of USC's 40.5 points in the final team race with the Trojans not fielding a team in the 4x400-meter relay.
Other Tigers turning in All-America performances for the final day of the men's competition were seniors Quincy Downing in the 400-meter hurdles and Joshua Thompson in the 110-meter hurdles, senior Aaron Ernest and sophomore Tremayne Acy in the 200-meter dash and their 4x100-meter relay sprinting to the bronze medal in the first championship final of the day.
"We really had a great meet," said LSU head coach Dennis Shaver of his team's performance at this year's NCAA Championship. "The men really stepped it up. I think the performances that we had at this meet were at a level that shows just how competitive this team is. We had a lot of personal bests and other outstanding performances today that led to a great finish for the team.
"We couldn't be more proud of Vernon. I thought he really ran inspired today. It's not easy to run so many races in conditions like this where the wind is really blowing, but he got it done for us today."
The afternoon belonged to Norwood as he closed out one of the storied careers in the history of the LSU program as a four-time NCAA Champion and nine-time All-American as one of the greatest 400-meter sprinters to ever wear the purple and gold. He walked away with two NCAA titles and three All-America honors alone in his final appearance for LSU.
After qualifying for the 400-meter final on Wednesday with the fastest time of the semifinal round at 45.42, Norwood cruised to the finish line in 45.10 on Friday afternoon to put his name alongside the "X-Man" as the only two Tigers in the team's history to win the event at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. The race was rightly billed as a battle of heavyweights with Norwood, the reigning NCAA Indoor Champion, running to knock off Texas A&M's defending NCAA Outdoor Champion Deon Lendore for his title sweep in 2015.
But Lendore quickly fell out of contention when he pulled up with an apparent hamstring injury on the backstretch, leaving Norwood in a tight race for the crown with the likes of Oregon's Marcus Chambers, Illinois' DJ Zahn and Florida's Najee Glass. The LSU senior powered past Glass (46.31) at the curve and outlasted both Chambers (45.59) and Zahn (45.97) to the finish line for the win.
Also following Norwood across the finish line in the 400-meter final were Alabama's Steven Gayle (46.32) in fifth, Texas' Zack Bilderback (46.50) in sixth and North Carolina's Ceo Ways (46.52) in seventh overall.
"I pretty much did exactly what Coach (Dennis) Shaver asked me to do. He knew the wind was heavy on the backstretch, and that I had (Deon) Lendore in front of me, so he just told me to stay calm and keep it close," Norwood shared. "Him pulling up gave me confidence because he's such a great runner. I just stayed true to the race plan after that."
When returning to the track for the 4x400-meter relay final in his final race in an LSU uniform, Norwood would not be denied as he overtook Florida's Najee Glass with a blistering 44.97-second split on the anchor leg to go out a two-time national champion on the day. He teamed with Downing and juniors Fitzroy Dunkley and Cyril Grayson in winning LSU's fourth NCAA Outdoor title in school history in the mile relay.
It quickly turned into a two-team race for the relay title as Downing and Dunkley put the Tigers in a strong position just three tenths of a second behind the Gators at the second exchange. That's when Grayson posted a blistering 45.02-second split on the third leg before Norwood brought the title back to Baton Rouge as he sprint past Glass with 60 meters to go with Florida taking second in 3:02.48.
The Tigers had the ninth-fastest time in school history at 3:01.96 for the win as they were also followed across the finish line by Mississippi State (3:04.96) in third place, Ohio State (3:05.35) in fourth place, BYU (3:05.56) in fifth place, Arkansas (3:05.91) in sixth place, defending NCAA relay champion Texas A&M (3:06.85) in seventh place and Illinois (3:07.10) in eighth place.
The Tigers have now captured the NCAA Outdoor title in the 4x400-meter relay a total of four times in the program's history as Friday's victory followed in the footsteps of winning teams from 2003, 2005 and 2006.
"I just wanted to go out the right way," Norwood said of his determination to end the meet with a win in the relay. "That was the last time for me and Quincy, you know, Cyril and Fitz, they're coming back next year. All we wanted to do was go out the right way with a win. There's a lot of emotions. It just means a lot. It shows how hard I've been working from indoors to go out like that today."
The Tigers started the day as the reigning NCAA Outdoor Bronze Medalists in the 4x100-meter relay, and they raced to a seasonal best to defend their position as the third-place finishers once again on Friday.
With Thompson leading off, Norwood running the second leg, Acy lining up as the third leg and Ernest running anchor, the Tigers slashed nearly two tenths of a second off of their seasonal best with their time of 38.62 seconds to follow national champion Arkansas (38.47) and runner-up TCU (38.59) with their sixth-fastest time in school history. The Tigers smashed their previous seasonal best of 38.78 entering the meet.
Ernest found himself in fifth place coming off the turn after taking the stick from Acy at the final exchange, but brought the Tigers to third at the finish line while passing anchor legs from Texas A&M and USC coming on the homestretch. It took a school record from the Razorbacks to win the sprint relay title, while the Horned Frogs also clocked a seasonal best.
LSU's foursome took home the NCAA bronze medal in the 4x100-meter relay for the fifth time in school history as they also placed third nationally in 1997, 2000, 2010 and 2014. It also marked the 17th time for the Tigers to medal at the NCAA Championships in the sprint relay as they have also been crowned national champions eight times and silver medalists four times in meet history.
Rounding out the sprint relay finalists were Southern California (38.75), Texas A&M (38.77), Florida (38.96), Illinois (39.36) and Alabama (39.63) as the scorers in the first event final on Championship Friday.
Thompson turned up the heat when he stepped back onto the track to run in the national final of the men's 110-meter hurdles for the first time in his career as he cleared the course with a wind-aided 13.34 (+3.9) and earned his first career All-America honor with a fourth-place finish. It proved to be the fastest hurdle race of Thompson's career.
The Steubenville, Ohio, native just missed the medal places as he followed Arkansas' national champion Omar McLeod (13.01w), Oregon's silver medalist Jonathan Cabral (13.22w) and Houston's bronze medalist Isaac Williams (13.31w) across the finish line in the final. Thompson's 13.34w made him the second-fastest hurdler in school history under all conditions, trailing only Barrett Nugent's wind-aided 13.19 from 2011.
Iowa's Aaron Mallett (13.40w) followed Thompson in fifth place, while Texas' Spencer Dunkerley-Offor (13.45w), Clemson's Justin Johnson (13.56w) and Savannah State's Cameron Hall (13.61w) rounded out the field.
Downing added a fourth-place finish of his own when he took his mark in lane No. 7 in the final of the 400-meter hurdles to secure his second career All-America honor in the event. The reigning NCAA Outdoor Bronze Medalist in the 400 hurdles, Downing cut through a strong headwind on the backstretch and brought it home in 49.79 for fourth place as an All-American again in his senior season.
Twice an NCAA runner-up in the event, Kansas' Michael Stigler won his first career national championship in the race with a winning time of 48.84. Downing also followed Boise State's runner-up Jordin Andrade (49.24) in second place and Illinois' bronze medalist David Kendziera (49.56) in third place in the final. LSU's senior also edged Texas A&M's Gregory Coleman (50.15) at the finish line for fourth place overall.
Following Downing in the 400-meter hurdles final were South Carolina's Jussi Kanervo (50.20) in sixth place, Florida's Eric Futch (50.90) in seventh place and Pittsburgh's Desmond Palmer (51.57) in eighth place.
Acy and Ernest then set the stage for a dramatic finish going into the 4x400-meter relay when they stepped onto the track for the 200-meter final for LSU's last opportunity to gain ground on the Trojans in the hunt for the fourth-place team trophy. And they responded with the fastest races of their collegiate careers to post a 4-5 finish for nine points in the event.
After clocking a wind-legal personal best of 20.17 (+1.8) in Wednesday's semifinal to earn a spot in his first career NCAA final in the event, Acy sped around the curve and crossed the finish line with a windy 20.04 (+2.4) to secure five points and All-America honors with a fourth-place finish. Ernest, lining up in the 200-meter final for the third time in his career, followed in fifth place with a time of 20.11w for four points.
USC's Andre De Grasse became the fastest 200-meter sprinter under all conditions in collegiate history with his winning wind-aided time of 19.58 followed by Florida's Dedric Dukes in second place and Baylor's Trayvon Bromell in third place with match times of 19.86w. The two Tigers trailed in fourth and fifth place, respectively, to round out the Top 5 in the 200-meter final for 2015.
"It means a lot. Just for me to even be here, I'm happy with that," Acy said after running in his first NCAA final. "I'm still shocked I ran the time I did. To just even be here after not running last year, I feel good."
Their performance in the 200 meters brought the Tigers to within 5.5 points of the Trojans, who were in the clubhouse with 40.5 points for the meet and without a 4x400-meter relay to run in the final event of the day. Only needing a third-place finish in the mile relay to snatch the fourth-place trophy away from the Trojans, the Tigers left no doubt as they stormed to the national championship in Friday's finale.
Friday's competition also saw the end to one of the storied careers by an LSU discus thrower as former All-American and two-time SEC Champion Rodney Brown stepped into the ring for the final time and threw a best of 191-5 on the day for a ninth-place finish in his final appearance at the NCAA Championships.
With the Tigers wrapping up their 18th-straight top-10 team finish in the men's competition at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships on Friday night, the Lady Tigers will compete for a top-10 finish of their own on Championship Saturday as the women's competition wraps up another outstanding week of NCAA track and field at Oregon's Hayward Field.