Five-time SEC champ Joe Berry has only outdoor eligibility remaining.
Jan. 11, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- "Overcoming Obstacles" might be an appropriate phrase for University of Tennessee Director of Track & Field/Cross Country J.J. Clark if he were considering a theme or rallying cry for the 2012 season, which begins Friday at the Kentucky Invitational in Lexington.
The loss of several key members of last year's men's team and the departure of two Lady Vol standouts due to graduation will create challenges for Clark and his staff as they embark on a new campaign.
A two-time NCAA champion coach, Clark has never shied away from tough situations, and he's not about to start now. He and his assistants will find ways to recruit and develop point-producers on the men's club, and they will supplement the points lost to SEC champions and All-Americans Jackie Areson and Liz Costello on the women's team.
While Tennessee returns every Lady Vol scorer from the 2011 NCAA Outdoor meet, where UT placed 11th, and SEC individual event champions in Annie Alexander, Chanelle Price, Brittany Sheffey and Ellen Wortham, Clark must go back to the drawing board with the Vols. He will be seeking to replace last year's duo of rookie All-Americans Justin Hunter and Dentarius Locke as well as key SEC scorers in Peter Sigilai and Michael Spooner.
A dual-sport athlete, Hunter suffered a torn ACL during the third game of the 2011 football season, and his return this season is unlikely. Spooner was lost to graduation, while Locke transferred to a school closer to home and Sigilai did not return after having only a partial season of eligibility remaining.
"Those were humongous hits to our team," Clark admitted. "I am not going to sit here and act like they weren't. We had the injury to Justin, two transfers and some graduation losses, and these all were key players in our program.
"We recognize the needs of the program and understand our depth is not where it needs to be. We are not leaving any stone unturned in our recruiting process to make sure this program has the depth necessary to win. That's what we intend to do."
"We need more depth in most areas, which has been a recruiting focus," Clark said of the women's and men's teams. "We do have four returning Lady Vol SEC champions and five-time pole vault champ Joe Berry on the men's side, though, so we have some firepower coming back.
"We don't have the depth across the board, but we are working diligently to create that by developing people and bringing in talented newcomers."
There was significant movement in the coaching staff during the offseason, as Clark made difficult personnel changes that he felt were necessary to move the program forward
Long-time Associate Head Coach George Watts was not retained as the men's distance leader, as Clark opted to add responsibilities for the Vols to his list. To assist in that endeavor, Clark brought in Mary Jayne Reeves, who had prior experience working with male and female distance runners at Virginia and Virginia Tech as well as 10 years' experience as a professional runner.
During the fall, the transition seemed to go well, as both cross country teams demonstrated improvement throughout the season, and three runners garnered all-star accolades for their performances. Sheffey earned All-SEC and All-South Region honors for the third time in her career, while Chris Bodary made the all-region squad for the second time and Austin Whitelaw earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team.
Clark also replaced men's sprint coach Norbert Elliott with former LSU sprint standout and American indoor record-holder Rohsaan Griffin. A year of work as a volunteer assistant for the Vols in 2011, coupled with Griffin's experience as a sprint coach at East Tennessee State and Milligan, gave Clark the insight to make such a switch.
While Griffin's hiring during the summer left him behind the recruiting game for this year, he has been tireless in his pursuit to add new talent to the Tennessee roster in the near future as well as improve the productivity of those already on the team.
John Frazier was promoted to associate head coach in the offseason and returns for his sixth year in charge of the throws group. He welcomes back a strong women's throws group, headed by Alexander, and his men's cadre should be bolstered by the addition of several key newcomers.
In the jumps and multi-events area, Jerome Romain is back for his third season after producing his first UT All-American last season in Hunter. While the super-talented leaper is likely out for the year due to a knee injury, Romain has several pupils on the men's and women's teams who will be point-producers for Tennessee in 2012.
Sharon Seagrave returns for year number two as the women's sprint coach and has stabilized an area that had seen four coaches in a six-year span. Her impact was felt, as Wortham emerged as an SEC champion and national contender in the 400m hurdles, and the Lady Vols had All-America 4x400m relay teams indoors and out and an honorable mention 4x100m unit to boot.
Tennessee also has four volunteer coaches on staff this season, including men's pole vault coach Russ Johnson, women's pole vault coach David Job, Bill Schmidt (javelin) and Daniel Goetz (distance). Johnson returns five-time SEC pole vault champion Berry, while Job has back Linda Hadfield, who last season set a UT freshman record in the women's vault.
"Everything is going great with our staff," Clark said. "They all understand their roles, what the expectations and goals are, and what my recruiting philosophy is. "We're going to keep pressing forward and keep our nose to the grindstone until we see change."
The 2011 season was one of progress for the Vols, as they scored at the NCAA Indoor meet for the first time since 2009, placing 39th. They also carded improved finishes of seventh indoors and eighth outdoors at the SEC Championships.
But as previously mentioned, there has been some attrition, both expected and unexpected, from the squad that got Tennessee headed back in the right direction.
"We lost people," Clark said. "We can't use that as an excuse, but it's a reality. We have to develop student-athletes to score points to offset the departures. We will get that done.
"We have to create excitement within our event groups. We have to coach the athletes who are here to score points and win. I believe we can do that, because in the cross country season, we had lost three of our top five from the previous season and didn't give much ground in terms of our SEC performance."
The Vols do welcome back SEC vault champion Berry for the outdoor season only, as well as previous league scorers Chase Brannon and Robert Rasnick in that event. Clark also can count on experienced distance men Chris Bodary, Steve Fassino, Joe Franklin and Jake Rainey, and relay legs Deaundra Dailey, Reggie Juin, Jarael Nelvis and Varick Tucker to set the tone for a team that welcomes some talented newcomers in all event areas.
"Our goal for the track season is to not only not lose ground but make gains. We have some returnees and some newcomers who can help, and we look forward to those challenges."
Clark has back four Vols who scored in distance events in 2011. Fassino, a senior, turned in a fifth-place finish at the SEC Outdoor meet in the steeplechase and is competing in track only this season after exhausting his cross country eligibility in 2010.
Franklin, the most decorated of UT's distance runners, enters his senior campaign as a nine-time SEC scorer, including five times in the 800 meters. A year ago, he placed sixth indoors in that event and contributed points outdoors as a member of UT's 4x400m relay team.
Also back is Rainey, a sophomore, who checked in seventh as a rookie in the 10,000 meters at the SEC Outdoor meet in a career-best 30:54.32.
Coming off a fine senior cross country campaign is Bodary, who earned All-South Region kudos on the trails and was UT's top runner in every race. He reported in seventh in the 5K at last year's conference indoor affair and looks to be capable of providing the Vols with multiple scoring chances in 2012.
"Anywhere from the mile to the indoor 5K, he'll do great," Clark said of Bodary. "It just depends on how we'll use him. "He's done a good job, is very talented and was very consistent in cross country. He bought into the program right away, has been very coachable and had immediate results with it. I believe he has some good performances to come this season."
While Sigilai, Spooner and DMR contributor Ford Bell moved on after last season, Tennessee will hope for others to step into the gap. Returnees such as Jordan Chaney (9th, SEC mile) and senior Tom Gilmartin (11th steeplechase) were on the verge a year ago, and sophomore Daniel Tobin could work his way into that mix as well.
"All of our returning guys have to move forward and step up this season," Clark said. "They are all capable of scoring at the conference meet. Every one of them can get the job done.
"That will be a plus for Tennessee if that happens. That is my charge as a coach to make sure we get this done and they understand what their roles and goals are."
Junior Garrek Thompson, who sat out 2011 after transferring from LSU, looks to be a possibility in the 800 and with UT's DMR, and freshmen Jeremy Dickie and Austin Whitelaw were impressive as consistent scorers for the cross country squad as rookies.
Classmate Nick Kaiser enters with a lot of promise as one of the nation's top prep 800 runners in 2010. His 1:50.00 PR ranks second on UT's depth chart entering the season.
The DMR, which finished second at SECs in 2011, will be retooled in 2012 after everyone but 400 leg Benson departed.
"The SEC is a very difficult distance conference, and right now, especially on the men's side, you have a great amount of international students coming in. Many times, those athletes are older and more developed. With his previous experience at this level, I believe Garrek will be the factor in scoring at the SEC level if we can keep him healthy.
"We have some good returnees who can help us, and we have some good newcomers who can be contributors. How quickly remains to be seen, but we're talking about 18-year-old freshmen trying to compete at this level. We just have to keep plodding forward and working hard to attain our goals."
Men's Vertical Jumps
The group with the second-most scorers in SEC action is the pole vault corps. Without question, Berry is the leader of that cadre, as he tries to match Lawrence Johnson's UT record of six league vault crowns this season. Berry swept the indoor (17-7 1/2) and outdoor (17-8 1/2) titles a season ago and hopes to follow suit in his lone shot outdoors in 2012 and add a trip to the NCAA meet to it.
"When I see Joe Berry compete, I see a warrior," Clark said. "He really does a fantastic job of getting the best out of himself at the right time. I commend him for that.
"He's had a little bumpier time outdoors in terms of getting to the national meet, but I know he can overcome those obstacles. His talent and his focus will allow him to do that. I believe he'll conquer that, and he'll be a great boost to our program during the outdoor season."
Berry has a gifted ensemble around him, as well, as senior Rasnick and sophomore Brannon return after scoring at the conference meet last season. Brannon tied for eighth indoors (PR 16-5 1/2) and was fifth outdoors (PR 16-6 3/4), while Rasnick was seventh inside at 16-11 1/2.
That group also has even more point potential, as talented sophomore Tyler Porter returns with a PR of 16-7 1/4 and is joined by redshirt freshman Michael Maira (15-0) and true freshman Sam Tabor (14-6), a state champion decathlete and vaulter.
"Russ Johnson is our men's pole vault coach, and he does an outstanding job. When I was appointed the head coach here, I thought he would be the man for the job, and I was correct. He has a great record and has done fantastic things with UT's vaulters, and we anticipate more of the same from the vault group this season."
Men's Horizontal Jumps
With the injured Hunter being an All-American long jumper and indoor/outdoor SEC scorer in that event, someone will need to step up and fill his shoes. While junior Desmond Brown hasn't shown 26-foot range like Hunter, his 25-9 1/4 jump from 2010 was good enough to earn him fifth at the SEC Outdoor meet. He also scored indoors that season and is working with Romain to try and rediscover that form in 2012.
Freshman Tyler Anderson, Tennessee's Gatorade Track & Field Athlete of the Year, comes to campus with a prep best of 24-8 1/4 in the long jump and a 48-7 1/4 PR in the triple jump.
Frazier's throws corps returns only one veteran, junior Drew Thomas. He finished 11th in the weight throw at the SEC Indoor meet in 2011 and hopes to produce points this time around.
Redshirt freshman Matthew Hoty will finally make his Big Orange debut after a decorated prep career. He had PRs of 65-11 in the shot and 188-11 in the discus in high school.
Transfer Tavis Bailey looks promising in the discus after placing fifth at the USA Junior Championships last summer, while former Wake Forest javelin thrower Luke Hadden (200-3) hopes to make an SEC impact after scoring in the ACC.
"Matthew Hoty is obviously a good one," Clark said. "I look forward to seeing him throw, and I think he can put points on the board for us. At this point, we believe it will be better for Tavis to redshirt indoors and then compete outdoors."
Losing Locke certainly impacts Griffin's first year in charge of the sprinters, and recruiting will be a priority.
Still, UT welcomes back seniors Dailey and Tucker, who were members of the seventh-place 4x400m relay units at last season's SEC meets. Dailey also was a part of the scoring 4x1 unit at the league meet as well.
"Those guys were contributors to the relays last year and hopefully again this season," Clark said. "They'll be trying to do their best to make it to a final."
Nelvis (4x4) and Juin (4x1) contributed to scoring units a year ago and should once again be key components, with Nelvis likely to play a bigger role with the 4x1 in Locke's absence.
Hurdler Benson and middle distance guys Franklin and Thompson will be part of the equation with the 4x4, and newcomers Anderson and David Hayes should provide assistance on one or both relay tandems.
Nelvis is the top returnee individually in the shorter sprints (6.86/10.54/21.12), while Hayes is second on the depth chart in the 100m (10.75) and Anderson is next in the 200m (21.49).
In the 400m, Tucker (47.37) and Dailey (47.74) have the best marks of the returnees. Anderson is next at 48.55.
"Tyler should come in right away and make an immediate impact in the jumps and sprints," Clark said. "We're looking for good things from him. David is more developmental, but there is nothing wrong with that."
Benson returns after finishing eighth in the 60m hurdles at the 2011 SEC Indoor meet, and he appeared he was capable of scoring in the 400m hurdles when he was disqualified in the prelims. He has run 8.15 indoors and 14.28 and 52.85 outdoors in the 60m, 100m and 400m hurdles.
Carney is the lone returnee, but he is not expected to compete due to injury. That leaves true freshman Tabor, the 2011 Tennessee Division II state champion with a PR score of 6,767 as the Vols' only decathlete.
The Lady Vols finished seventh at the NCAA Indoor meet in 2011, running their total of top-10 national finishes under Clark to 10. They just missed the cut outdoors with the previously-mentioned 11th-place showing and posted efforts of third indoors and seventh outdoors at the SEC Championships.
Areson and Costello were key reasons for that success a year ago, but neither was a factor at the NCAA Outdoor meet. Areson's eligibility expired after the indoor season, and Costello failed to qualify for the outdoor meet after falling at the NCAA East Preliminary meet. That means all 20 of Tennessee's 11th-place points from last year's NCAA Outdoor meet return.
Alexander in the throws, Price in the middle distances, Sheffey in the distances and Wortham in the hurdles, sprints and jumps provide Tennessee a strong core of leadership and firepower. All the relay groups are back intact, and UT has potential in both the throws and pole vault as well.
"When you lose the good ones, it's hard to replace them," Clark said. "What you want to do is continue the growth of your team in all areas. Maybe we can compensate for their absence with people in other areas such as the throws group with Laquoya Kelly, Jessie Harrison and Aslynn Halvorson, for example. They are capable of scoring in our conference and nationally.
"We're not sure where it's all (lost points) going to come from, but we'll try to utilize the team collectively to offset one or two great athletes. I remember my first dominant athlete years ago (at Florida) was Becki Wells. You don't replace her; you don't replace a Hazel Clark, a Sarah Bowman, a Phoebe Wright. We just continue developing athletes. I am looking to see the team respond as a whole to bring together championships."
The strength of the women's team will once again be its distance group, with the focus moving more to the middle-length races rather than the longer ones this season. While Areson and Costello are gone, Price and Sheffey return and are primed for stellar senior campaigns.
Price swept SEC indoor and outdoor titles in the 800 meters last season and has been a member of UT's SEC meet-record-setting distance medley relay units the past two seasons. She was third in the 800 at the 2011 NCAA Outdoor meet and took sixth indoors, setting the stage for bigger things in 2012.
"Chanelle brings a lot of experience and quality to the middle distance corps," Clark said. "She's the leader of that group and one of the leaders on our team. That's what she has to offer."
She'll be joined in the 800 returnee ranks by sophomore Kianna Ruff, junior Nijgia Snapp, both SEC scorers, and sophomores Brittney Jackson and Ty-Vonna Johnson. Ruff finished sixth indoors and out in the 800 at the SEC level, while Snapp was fifth indoors. Clark is hopeful Jackson and Johnson can break through as sophomores.
"We have a few people who can help in the distance group," Clark said. "Chanelle, Nijgia and Kianna, and I think Brittney and Ty-Vonna fit in there as well. That is a very strong group and the kind of impact and presence I'd like to have in every event area."
Sheffey, meanwhile, can run an 800 leg on a relay, but her forté is anything from the mile to the 5000 meters. She claimed her first SEC individual crown in 2011, winning the 1500m run outdoors and taking third indoors in the 3K and outdoors in the 5K. She has twice been part of UT's winning DMR units at the league meet, including last year's record-setting effort, and scored 16 points at the SEC indoor and outdoor meets in 2010 with runner-up finishes in the mile and a 3K indoors and 1500m and 5K outdoors.
"I think Brittany has been overshadowed these past few years," Clark said. "First you had Sarah Bowman, and then you follow up with Jackie Areson. Then Liz Costello transfers in, and in addition to those ladies, you had Phoebe and Chanelle in the 800, so she kind of got lost in the mix, but she has still been a high quality runner for us.
"She scored 16 points in both the SEC Indoor and Outdoor Championships in 2010, so that tells you what her capabilities are. I think her history here and her 2011 cross country season indicate her time has come to shine."
Others returnees include seniors Elizabeth Altizer, Charity Honeycutt and Elizabeth Tiller, juniors Andrea Ferri, Ramzee Fondren and Kelsey Kane, and sophomore Amber Zimmerman.
Newcomers include freshmen Lizzie Cornell, Amirah Johnson and Julia Petree, as well as transfer Patavia Lowery, a sophomore. Johnson had the biggest impact in cross country during the fall, scoring in all six team races in the number-four or -five slot.
Alexander, a four-time All-American, nine-time SEC scorer and five-time league champ, heads up the women's throws contingent. After redshirting indoors in 2011, Alexander made a huge impact outdoors, winning SEC crowns in the shot and discus and carding third-place finishes in those events at the NCAA Outdoor meet. Along the way, she improved her UT record in the shot to 57-11 1/4 and her Trinidad & Tobago national best in the discus to 192-2.
"Annie came into our program winning, taking three SEC titles as a freshman," Clark said. "She has been very consistent and helped us win a national title and SEC Championship in 2009. Her ability to score when necessary is something I look forward to and depend on, and her maturity over the years has been very evident.
"I am anxious to see that continue to develop. She brings a lot to the table, and we look forward to having her all year in 2012, keeping that momentum and being a leader of our team. You couple her with Chanelle, Brittany and Ellen, you have great team leadership. We look forward to getting this group together and getting the team going down the right path."
Alexander isn't the only scorer in the throws regiment, as Clark mentioned. Senior Kelly, junior Harrison and sophomore Halvorson all have contributed points to Tennessee at the league level. Harrison has twice finished sixth in the weight throw, including 2011, and Halvorson was eighth indoors in the shot a year ago. Kelly was sixth in the hammer in 2009 and has been on the cusp in the weight and hammer several more times.
Sophomore Katherine Dresch was 14th in the javelin in 2011 and hopes to move into scoring arrange this time around.
Discussion of the sprint/hurdles group begins with Wortham, who won an SEC title in the 400m hurdles last season, something no Lady Vol had done since 1992. She also scored at the conference level in the long jump, high jump, pentathlon, 4x100m, 4x400m and distance medley relays, making her the most diverse athlete on the squad.
"Ellen is the leader of the sprint group," Clark said. "There is no question, she has impacted that area with points, her tenacity and competitiveness. She always gives you what she's got and gives you her best shot."
Wortham has a veteran cast around her that has seen dividends from a full year of training with coach Seagrave. Seniors Brittany Jones and Ashley Harris, and juniors Kia Jackson and Martinique Octave are seeking gains in individual events, hoping to generate points in that fashion.
"Kia, Ashley, Brittany and Martinique have had a full year in Sharon's program, and I think we are going to see some improved results from them," Clark said. "They had some good results on relays last year, and you should start to see some development in the open races this year as well.
"I am happy about Brittany Jones being healthy, and we'll take anything her body will allow her to give. She's always given us her best; I don't think that is going to change."
A year ago, Harris, Wortham, Octave and Jackson were on UT's sixth-place SEC 4x100m relay, while middle distance runners Price, Snapp and Ruff joined with Octave and Wortham to give UT not only SEC-scoring 4x4 units but an All-America NCAA quartet as well, with a seventh-place effort outdoors.
Natural hurdlers besides Wortham include senior Bianca Blair and freshman Kasha McDougald, who specialize more in the 100m variety. Blair owns a best of 13.57 and is seeking a breakout race as a Lady Vol.
Maryville's Petree is expected to work indoors in the 200/400 meters and outdoors in the 800, as mentioned previously. Women's Vertical Jumps
Wortham, with a PR of 5-7 3/4, is UT's top high jumper. She finished sixth in the SEC Indoor meet at 5-6 last season. Freshman Ashley Wengerter has a prep PR of 5-6 and could give UT a second option.
Hadfield demonstrated she has a bright future in the pole vault, earning SEC All-Freshman Team status last season for her sixth-place outdoor clearance of 13-1 3/4 that set a Lady Vol rookie record.
She'll be joined by freshman Erin Champion, a Tennessee state champion, who has cleared 12-1 1/2.
Women's Horizontal Jumps
Coach Romain's jumps group welcomes back a pair of SEC scorers in the long jump in Wortham (4th, outdoors, 19-11) and Kia Jackson (8th, indoors, 18-11 1/4), though Jackson's PR is 19-8.
He'll try to bring sophomores Jazmen Townsend (19-11 long jump PR) and Allison Outerbridge (39-9 1/4 triple jump PR) along in their second seasons and welcome McDougald as a possibility in both the triple jump (38-3) and long jump (18-6).
"Ellen and Kia jumped very well last season, and that is a credit to their hard work and the direction Jerome provided," Clark said. "We can really use those points in the jumps, because they round our team out."
Wortham's development in the pentathlon saw her emerge as a third-place finisher at the SEC meet (3,977) and an eighth-place finisher nationally (4,042) in 2011. She had posted conference outcomes of fifth in 2009 and fourth in 2010, so she has become a dependable point-producer at the indoor league meet in the multi-event competition.
Kirstyn Sweeney and Wengerter are underclass performers trying to develop into additional scorers for the Big Orange.
Tennessee opens the indoor slate Jan. 13-14 at the Kentucky Invitational. The squads will make two new excursions in 2012 to Birmingham, Ala., for the Auburn Indoor Invitational (Jan. 20-21) and to Akron, Ohio, for the Akron Invitational (Feb. 10-11).
"There's a new track in Birmingham (The CrossPlex) that's supposed to be a good one, and it is close enough for us to get there," Clark said. "The meet in Akron is on a 300-meter track, and we run SECs on a 300-meter track in Lexington. It's a different feel to an oversized track, so any time you can race on one and prepare, it is advantageous for your team." In turn, Akron will be among the teams coming to our meet outdoors (Tennessee Challenge)."
Along the way, the Big Orange will make return trips to the Texas A&M Mondo Challenge, New Balance Collegiate Invitational (New York City) and Husky Classic (Seattle, Wash./distance only) before going back to Lexington for the SEC Indoor Championships (Feb. 24-26) and to Nampa, Idaho, for the NCAA Indoor Championships (March 9-10).
Outdoors, UT opens with a split weekend on March 23-24. While the distance runners head to the Stanford Invitational on those dates, the rest of the squad will be in Starkville, Miss., for the scored SEC/Big 10 Challenge on Jan. 23. Following a second-straight dual meet battle with UCLA on the West Coast on March 31, Clark's squads play host to the Tennessee Challenge (April 7) and Sea Ray Relays (April 11-14) in back-to-back weeks. Akron, Louisville, Carson-Newman and North Carolina A&T are expected to join the home team on April 7 at UT's Tom Black Track at LaPorte Stadium.
The Big Orange squads then head to the Vanderbilt Invitational (April 20-21) and Penn Relays/UCSD Triton Invitational (April 26-28) before heading to SEC Outdoors (May 10-13, Baton Rouge), NCAA East Preliminary Rounds (May 24-26, Jacksonville, Fla.) and NCAA Outdoors (June 6-9, Des Moines, Iowa).