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NCAA meet expands to 1,088 athletes

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The multitude has assembled for the largest gathering of athletes for a championship event in the history of the NCAA.

With 1,088 competitors entered in this week's Outdoor Track and Field Championships — a 40 percent increase over last year — identifying a favorite is even trickier than usual.

The Arkansas men and LSU women, both winners of the indoor title four months ago, are considered the teams to beat when the four days of competition begin Wednesday at Sacramento State, site of next year's U.S. Olympic Trials.

But with the expanded field and exhausting schedule, especially for sprinters, this is uncharted territory.

"This meet throws a completely different element into it," said Pat Henry, coach of the LSU women and the defending champion LSU men.

On the men's side, Auburn, Tennessee and Mississippi State all could make a run at the crown. Texas, defending champion South Carolina and perennial runner-up UCLA are among the top challengers on the women's side.

Texas has to be the sentimental favorite, with Beverly Kearney coaching the Longhorns from a wheelchair as she continues to try and walk again. She was critically injured, and two others in the car were killed, in a crash on Dec. 26.

"I just feel blessed to be here," Kearney said, "after not being able to go to the indoor national championships. I'm excited. I'm ready to go."

Despite the opposition of most of the country's top coaches, the NCAA scrapped the old qualifying standards in all events except the 10,000 meters, heptathlon and decathlon.

The country was divided into four sections, and regional meets were held with the top five in each event advancing to the nationals. In addition, six at-large berths were awarded.

The goal was to increase the percentage of track athletes to participate in the nationals. Track has gone from one of the least represented sports to the second-highest.

However, many coaches don't like the stress the new system puts on athletes, who must compete in their conference meets, regional meets and the nationals. If they're good enough, they will go on to the USA Championships, which begin five days after the NCAAs end.

"It's not to the advantage of the athlete," South Carolina coach Curtis Frye said. "It's not fair as far as the safety of athletes and the question of injuries. I don't see any pluses in it. But it's where we're at. Everybody is going from the same position. We're going to line up and we're going to see an incredible track meet."

The big field means a second round of qualifying in the 100, 200, 400 and both hurdles.

South Carolina sophomore Tiffany Ross will compete in the 100 hurdles, 400 hurdles and both relays. If she makes the finals in all four, she will have 12 races in four days.

"I can't tell myself I'm tired," she said. "I just have to keep pushing and keep fighting and doing what I came here to do."

Wednesday will be crammed with preliminary events from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The first finals will be the women's and men's 10,000, set for 9 p.m., PDT, and 9:40 p.m., Thursday night. Arkansas' Daniel Lincoln plans to run in that race as well as go for his third consecutive 3,000 steeplechase crown.

Lincoln and 5,000-meter favorite Alistair Craig are crucial if Arkansas' men are to capture their first outdoor championship since 1999. Coach John McDonnell's Razorbacks won every outdoor men's title from 1992 to 1999.

"We have to focus on what we do," Tennessee men's coach Bill Webb said. "We will be pulling for Stanford and other people in the 10,000 meters. But if you try to figure this meet out, you'll go crazy. There are four or five teams that could win this meet if everything went right for them."

South Carolina's chances of defending its women's title were severely hurt when sophomore Lashinda Demus was suspended for violating unspecified team rules. Demus holds the world junior record in the 400 (54.70 seconds) and won the event last year.

Frye said it's a mistake, though, to write off his team or any of the other top half-dozen or so in the meet.

"There is no favorite," he insisted. "All of us have good programs and great athletes. There is not a shortage of athletes on my team. Athletes do extraordinary things when they get in extraordinary situations."