BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Tiger sophomore Aaron Ernest made sure that his homecoming Saturday night was one to remember when he smashed his indoor personal record with a run of 20.80 seconds to take the men's 200-meter crown at the second-annual Crimson Tide Indoor Opener at the Birmingham Sportsplex.
Ernest led a host of five event winners for the LSU Track & Field program in Saturday's opener as he was joined on the winner's podium by senior Kimberlyn Duncan (60 meters), junior Denise Hinton (weight throw) and fellow sophomores Tori Bliss (shot put) and Quincy Downing (400 meters).
Ernest had never run faster than 21.47 in an indoor 200-meter race on a banked track before Saturday, but the Alabama native took the title by nearly a half second with his season-opening effort.
Running in lane No. 5 in the ninth and final 200-meter section with Mississippi State All-American Tavaris Tate to his outside in lane No. 6, Ernest pulled even with Tate down the backstretch and pulled away around the final turn before crossing the finish line in 20.80 ahead of Tate's 21.33. Florida freshman Arman Hall actually finished second in the heat and the event with his opening run of 21.22.
While highlighting Saturday's meet in Birmingham, Ernest became the No. 5-ranked performer indoors in the men's 200-meter dash in the history of the LSU Track & Field program.
While he ran an indoor best of 21.13 on an oversized track to claim All-SEC honors a season ago with his second-place finish at the SEC Indoor Championships held at Kentucky's Nutter Field House, Ernest only managed a best of 21.47 for an oversized track at Arkansas' Randal Tyson Track Center at the Razorback Invitational in his second 200-meter race of his freshman season in 2012.
"I knew I could try to catch him at the start," Ernest said of running to the inside of Tate. "Once I did that, I thought I could maybe hold up through the end. I struggled running on a bank last year, but I'm so much more familiar with it now. I've put in a lot of work to come out and have a great start to the year."
Ernest credits his hard work in fall training for a quick start to the 2013 indoor season as he is already in a position to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships in March.
He also continues his momentum from a breakout freshman season outdoors in 2012 when he captured an impressive three All-America honors in his debut at the NCAA Outdoor Championships before winning a haul of three medals for the United States at the IAAF World Junior Championships. Ernest was the silver medalist in both the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes and a gold medalist in the 4x100 relay.
"Running at World Juniors was a great experience for me," Ernest said. "I used my success there to really push me through the summer and fall to come out and have a great indoor season this year. Not qualifying for NCAAs really bothered me last year. I want to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Before Ernest took the title in the 200-meter final, Downing ran an indoor personal best of his own to win the men's 400-meter title with a season-opening run of 47.72 to win the sixth heat.
Like Ernest, Downing also won a gold medal for the United States at the World Junior Championships for his efforts as Team USA's leadoff leg in 4x400-meter relay. Downing emerged as one of the NCAA's top young 400-meter talents while setting a lifetime PR of 46.18 as a freshman outdoors a year ago.
Hinton got the No. 4-ranked Lady Tigers off to a fast start in their season opener with a dominating win in the first event of the meet as she captured her fifth career weight throw crown.
And Hinton wasted no time in solidifying her position at the top of the leaderboard with an opening throw of 64 feet, 8 inches that held up for a nearly three-foot victory over runner-up Jayla Bostic of Florida with her top mark of 61-10 ¼ set during the third round of throws.
Hinton, who holds LSU's school record in the event with a career-best of 69-9 ¾, is eyeing a return to the NCAA Championships in the weight throw as she is already ahead of last year's pace when she kicked off her sophomore season at 58-7 ½ for fifth place at the Crimson Tide Indoor Opener. She also had marks of 63-6 in the fourth round, 62-2 ¼ in the sixth round and 62-1 in the third round on Saturday.
Also improving on her season-opening performance from last year was Lady Tiger junior Karen Henning, as she threw a best of 58-4 ½ on her fifth attempt for a fourth-place finish in the competition.
Duncan captured her first 60-meter title in nearly two years with a dominating effort in Saturday's final in the women's "A" section. After cruising to an easy heat win with a season-opening run of 7.41 seconds in the preliminary round, Duncan took control of the race early and crossed the finish line in 7.39, in front of Florida State's Marecia Pemberton (7.47) and Florida's Shayla Sanders (7.47) for the win.
Duncan is already ahead of last year's pace as she did not break 7.40 in the 60-meter dash a year ago until her seventh race at the New Balance Collegiate Invitational in New York. She also claimed her first event crown in the 60 meters since her sophomore season at the LSU Twilight held on Feb. 18, 2010.
The reigning Bowerman Award winner is the two-time defending NCAA Indoor champion for 200 meters and enters the 2013 season with a streak of 18-straight collegiate wins in her signature event.
Bliss became the third Lady Tiger to take home an event title for Saturday's Crimson Tide Indoor Opener with her best performance in the shot put in her second season as a Lady Tiger.
Like Hinton, Bliss opened with her best mark of the day as she threw a lifetime personal best of 51-9 ¾ to take control of the event in the first round of throws to eclipse her previous PR of 51-7 and move one spot into the No. 4 spot on LSU's all-time indoor performance list in the event. Bliss won the event crown by a margin of 8 ¾ inches over the 51-1 by Florida State's Chelsea Whalen.
While the Tigers and Lady Tigers combined for five event wins in their season opener, there were six that claimed runner-up honors during the meet in their first action of the 2013 indoor campaign.
Taking home second-place finishes for the Tigers were senior Joseph Caraway with an indoor PR of 17-0 ¾ in the pole vault, sophomore Joshua Thompson with a time of 8.02 in the 60-meter hurdles and a squad of Downing, freshman Cyril Grayson, freshman Darrell Bush and Caleb Williams with a run of 3:09.81 in the men's 4x400-meter relay in the final event of the competition.
Among the Lady Tigers scoring silver medals were junior Keri Emanuel with a top effort of 19-8 ¾ in the long jump, junior Jasmin Stowers with a run of 8.44 in the "A" section of the 60-meter hurdles and senior Shanekia Hall with a time of 8.37 in the "B" section of the 60-meter hurdles.
Setting indoor PRs with their performance were Bush (48.26) in the 400 meters, seniors Siedda Herbert (24.38) in the 200 meters and Charlene Lipsey (55.44) in the 400 meters, junior Jaora Johnson (16-6 ¾) in the pole vault and sophomores Rodney Brown (59-11 ¼) and Jeremy Tuttle (58-2 ½) in the weight throw and Kaitlyn Moreau (17-3 ½) in the women's long jump.
Brown's fourth-place finish in the men's weight throw competition is most notable as he became the 10th-ranked performer in school history in his first collegiate appearance in the event.
"It looked like a season opener for us in so many ways, but we did some really good things here today for our first time out," said LSU head coach Dennis Shaver. "What we like to see from our athletes for a meet like this is improvement in their performance from this meet a year ago. We saw a lot of that today.
"We also saw many of our younger athletes step up and have good meets for us. That just shows you what kind of potential we have in our teams moving forward this season and into the future."
The Tigers and Lady Tigers return to action next weekend with a trip to College Station, Texas, with their appearance at the Texas A&M Tri-Meet being held at the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium on Saturday, Jan. 19. The LSU teams will square off against NCAA title contenders Texas A&M and Arkansas for both the men's and women's sides in a scored competition early in the indoor season.