With star decathlete Gray Horn suspended and speedster Jeff Demps hobbled by a hamstring injury, the Florida Gators men’s track and field team went to Des Moines for the NCAA Championships almost as an afterthought.
The loss of the two stars – guaranteed to score a lot of points – made things seem pretty hopeless for Florida.
But Florida put together one of its best meets in school history, with just about everyone capable of scoring points doing it. As Tony McQuay crossed the finish line in the 1600-meter relay, he let out a jubilant roar and his teammates swarmed him.
The Florida Gators were national champs.
“This is unbelievable,” Florida head coach Mike Holloway said in a press release. “It’s an absolute blessing. I can’t tell you how proud I am of this group of young men. We had a lot of adversity, not just this week, but throughout the year. You think about things, the people that weren’t here, the people that didn’t want to give you a chance but our guys never bought into it. I’m extremely proud of them.”
After an improbable comeback without their stars, Florida found itself in striking distance entering the 21st and final event of the championships, the 1600-meter relay. Running in Lane 4, the Gators had a two-point deficit to make up on the LSU Tigers.
LSU led the meet with 42 points, and Florida trailed with 40. As the runners lined up, Florida had LSU in its sights to start the race, with the Tigers running in Lane 7.
It didn’t take long to pass for the Gators to pass them.
“We knew what the team standings were and we came together like a family, as a team,” McQuay said in a press release. “I trusted my first, second and third legs to get us here. We have a young team and to have them step up really means a lot to the program.”
Freshman Derdic Dukes led things off for Florida and put the Gators in great shape before the lanes merged and it became a side-by-side race to the finish line.
Freshman Hugh Graham Jr. and junior Leonardo Seymore battled neck and neck with USC’s runners before McQuay – who won the individual title in the 400-meter dash on Friday night – slammed the door shut.
McQuay exploded through the final 400 meters, finishing the race in 3:00.22. It was the fastest time in the 1600-meter relay in the world this year.
Florida entered the final day of the NCAA Championships with 36 points, far out in front of the rest of the field. But LSU and Texas A&M both closed the gap throughout the early part of the day.
The Tigers took a one-point lead on Florida following the 200-meter dash, leaving things down to the final two men’s events – the 110-meter hurdles and the 1600-meter relay.
Florida sophomore Eddie Lovett lined up in Lane 1 for the 110-meter hurdles, looking to simply score points. LSU senior Barrett Nugent was running right next to him in Lane 2 – the reigning national champ in the 110-meter hurdles and a seven-time All-American.
Almost as if inspired by having such a high-profile competitor next to him, Lovett flew over the hurdles, finishing just two hundredths of a second behind Nugent. With Nugent fourth and Lovett fifth in the hurdles, LSU led by two going into the final event.
“That was huge for Eddie to come in, entered possibly one of the best high-hurdle fields in history and to be able to man up and get fifth place in that race,” Holloway said in the release. “That was huge for us. That got us within striking distance and gave us a chance to win this championship.”
That was more than enough for McQuay and company to finish the job.
McQuay also won the individual 400-meter dash to score 10 points for Florida. Junior Omar Craddock also claimed an individual national title in the triple jump to score 10. Junior Jeremy Postin finished second in the hammer throw to score eight.
“We lost our best sprinter, we lost our best decathlete and our 4×100 didn’t qualify,” Holloway said. “A lot of people would have given up hope, but our group of guys didn’t. I sat them down after Regionals and I said ‘We are still the best team in the country, as long as you believe it,’ and our guys believed it.”