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Monday June 10, 2013Gators Return Home, Champions Again

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They woke up early Sunday morning and left their hotel in Eugene, Ore., at 6 a.m.

Twelve hours, three time zones, two flights and one bus ride later, the Gators pulled up in front of the Lemerand Center on UF's campus.

A few dozen fans waited in the muggy night to greet the 2013 NCAA men's outdoor track and field national champions.

One of the fans handed out cookies. Gators soccer coach Becky Burleigh unfurled a homemade welcome-home sign that congratulated the Gators on their second consecutive outdoor title and the program's fifth national title in the past four years. TV cameras from two local news outlets and GatorVision lit up the night as the Gators stepped off the bus.

The Gators were finally home, champs again when few seemed to give them a chance to defend their title.

"I've never seen nothing like this or experienced anything like it,'' bleary eyed sophomore sprinter Dedric Dukes said. "It's been exciting and fun."

Dramatic, too.

In the final event on the 2012-13 UF sports calendar, the Gators stepped to the line late Saturday afternoon at historic Hayward Field needing a win in the 4x400-meter relay -- and a miracle -- to repeat as national champions.

They got both.

First, Florida took care of business on the track. The foursome of Najee Glass, Hugh Graham Jr., Dukes and Arman Hall scored 10 points by winning the 4x400. When the gun sounded, the Gators trailed leader Texas A&M by nine points.

Meanwhile, the Aggies dropped the baton in the 4x400. The dramatic turn of events meant Florida captured a share of the title as soon as Hall crossed the finish line on the final leg.

"We talk a lot about the last thing people see before they leave a championship is the 4X400, so we wanted to close it on a big note,'' Florida coach Mike Holloway said. "We went out there and did that, and then all of a sudden halfway through it, 'wow, we've got a chance to win the whole thing now.' It was pretty cool."

The Aggies finished eighth, scoring one point to share the national title. While overlooked much of the week in Eugene, the Gators never lost faith.

Including when the final race started, down by nine points.

"When we went to that line, there was never a belief in our hearts that we couldn't win that relay,'' Holloway said.

Dukes played a huge role. He missed time in the 4x400 late in the season due to nagging injuries. The Gators failed to win the Indoor 4x400 title but Dukes returned to the lineup in time for regionals, where the Gators won.

He came through Saturday with a big performance on the third leg.

"It was pretty intense,'' Dukes said. "My adrenaline was racing and I just wanted to do what I do best -- run fast."

Graham Jr. ran the second leg and did his part in taking the baton from Glass, burning around the track and making a clean exchange with Dukes.

He had no idea how crucial his role would be until after the race when he learned about the Aggies' troubles.

"I knew the team title was on the line,'' Graham said. "When I heard A&M dropped the stick, I was saying in my head, 'Oh god we've got a good chance to win it.' I was excited. To come back and win again is a great feeling."

The victory capped an impressive career for senior triple-jumper Omar Craddock.

Craddock scored 10 of Florida's 53 points when he repeated as national champion.

"It's a lot sweeter,'' Craddock said. "It was always good to win the first, the second, the third, the fourth. To get this one, I'm going out on top. It's just amazing.

"It was a huge goal. That's all we talked about. We wanted to really get this one to show we are the University of Florida and we are the best team in the nation."

As the week unfolded, the Gators flew under the radar when the media discussed the title contenders.

Florida failed to win its fourth consecutive NCAA Indoor title in March, casting doubt among outsiders that it could defend its Outdoor title.

There was none of that on the inside and it showed.

"We never let that deter us,'' Holloway said. "We never quit trying. We never quit believing. We felt we were the best team in the country."

After the Gators proved it Saturday, Holloway finally relaxed with his wife at the hotel. As he lay on the bed and reflected on the day, it hit him.

"I looked at my wife and said, 'wow, we've won five national titles.' She just kind of laughed,'' he said. "It's been almost surreal. We believed all along that we could do this and we never flinched. Even when things didn't go the way we wanted them to, nobody ever gave up."

Back home Sunday night the Gators had another title to celebrate -- after they get some rest from a whirlwind 24 hours.

"I'm tired right now,'' Dukes said.


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