Aug. 28, 2009
By Eric Trainer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - With a collection of veterans and newcomers on his 21-man roster, 15th-year University of Tennessee Men's Cross Country Coach George Watts is anxious to get the show on the road in 2009 and see how his latest edition stacks up. The Vols won't make their debut until Sept. 19, but the Big Orange harriers will do so at home as they play host to the Tennessee Invitational at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville.
Watts returns eight letterwinners from last year's team, which posted identical finishes of fifth at the SEC Championships and NCAA South Regional. The objective, which could be helped considerably by the addition of seven newcomers, is to return to the NCAA Championship meet for the sixth time during the Watts era and the 32nd occasion in school history. Among those expected to play key leadership roles for the Vols in 2009 are junior Michael Spooner and senior Chris Rapp, who hope to ease the loss of departed seniors Andrew Press (2007-08 All-South Region/2007 All-SEC) and Steve Tobin (2007 All-SEC).
A native of Springfield, Va., Spooner is coming off a sophomore campaign that saw him earn All-SEC and All-South Region accolades with finishes of 13th and 25th, respectively, at those competitions. He also made the SEC All-Freshman Team as a rookie in 2007. Rapp, who hails from Mason, Ohio, has not been accorded postseason honors, but he has been a valuable contributor and leader just the same. A year ago, he factored into the scoring cause in five of six races, filling the No. 4 slot on three occasions.
Below are their comments during a recent Q&A session.
George Watts (15TH SEASON AS MEN'S CROSS COUNTRY COACH AT UT)
On who he sees as his leaders on this team...
"I think Chris Rapp will be the vocal leader. Mike (Spooner) will be the team leader in practice on a regular basis, coming back from being All-SEC and scoring in the SEC 10K. He's pretty confident. I think they'll both be the types of leader we'll need. Mike Brodsky is a good team leader. He comes to practice every day ready to get better, probably better than anyone I've ever coached. He leads by example. Chris Bodary has had a good summer of training, and I think he'll be a little more prepared to lead in practice. Steve Fassino is a good leader, so we've got plenty of guys, especially with the big group I've got. With 21 guys, we need some leadership and some upperclassmen to take some of these freshmen under their wing on a regular basis. Hopefully that will happen."
On who might emerge from his cast of newcomers...
"Le (Leoule) Degfae comes in as a Foot Locker finalist. He ran out in San Diego last December, so I expect him potentially to be a top-five guy for us, and he should be. Peter Sigilai transferred from Rend Lake Community College and is the first Kenyan to run in our program. He has very good cross country ability. His strength is the middle distances, but he will run well for us in cross country. I expect him to be in the top five. I also expect Chris Bodary to make a big jump from his freshman year. Jordan Chaney is a local kid who made big improvements between his junior and senior year. He's a guy who has a great future for us. We have a strong team, a lot of people to work with and a lot of depth.
On opening the season at Lambert Acres...
"We've been running on that course since 1998, and it's been a great course for us. The people at Lambert Acres have been good to us, letting us come out and practice every day if we wanted to. It's been a nice place to go and train as well as race. In addition to our annual Tennessee Invitational, we've held two NCAA regionals and an SEC Championship out there, so we've had some big meets.
"This first meet of ours is important, because it allows me to compare this year's team against other teams we've had in the past to kind of see where they are and compare the times they ran. This year, we're going to run the traditional 8K course that we started with in 1998, so it'll be a good comparison to see where we stack up versus the teams that we've had qualify for the NCAAs recently.
"We've always had great support and a great turnout from the local public at our cross country meets, so that's great for the kids to come out and run in front of a nice crowd even though sometimes it's just a low-key meet. We have a lot of Tennessee kids, I think nine from instate now, so that's a big plus for them to be able to run in-state and have their parents come to watch them. Most of them don't live too far away, so it's nice to have that edge for them.
"The first meet, we're not sure who's going to be there, in terms of teams, but we just want to run competitively. We're not really training for this meet, in terms of being as fresh as we want to be. Still, we train pretty much the same every year, so that gives us a good comparison against the other teams we've had in recent years."
On how he motivates his team...
"I kind of joke sometimes with my guys that my expectations are higher than theirs, but they know what our goal is. It's always to be better than the previous year. Some years, you're not going to be as experienced as other years, but we've got a more experienced team this year. We should, just by the fact we have a lot of guys returning and a year stronger, be a much better team. We didn't run poorly last year at the conference and region meets. It's just that the teams we were up against were pretty strong teams. I think two of them in the South Region were top 10 teams at NCAAs and the other one that qualified out of our region was top 20, so our competition was pretty strong. We finished fifth in our region, so we want to get back to the NCAAs, which is something that Tennessee should be doing every year. That's our goal. Sometimes we reach it; sometimes we don't. This group wants to get back. I think they can do it. With the new kids we have here and the veterans we have returning, we're ready and poised to have a chance to get there."
Michael Spooner (JUNIOR, SPRINGFIELD, VA.)
On his preparation this summer for the 2009 campaign...
"This summer was almost exactly the opposite of last summer for me. Last year, I really had a grueling summer. Every run was all-out, all-everything and the intensity level was really, really high. I felt like I needed to do that to get myself up to the level where I could make a name for myself. My distance runs may have been less in mileage, but they were a lot faster.
"Last year was my first real mileage summer, in comparison to a lot of the guys I race. My mileage is a lot less than theirs. This summer, however, I focused more on logging the miles in and trusting that I can get the pace right when it comes to race day. I don't have to worry about the pacing during the summer. The pacing will actually come, because I spent all year getting used to running at that level. This time, I just wanted to set up my body to give myself a solid base and basically be as relaxed and fresh as possible for the season."
On how much last season's success has bolstered his confidence...
"It was great. My freshman year, I dealt with an Achilles injury in the summer. Freshman year, I was just kind of the fourth guy on the team, struggling and learning college. Going into last year, with a good summer of training that may or may not have hurt me in the long run, it was really positive. To go from a freshman who's just scoring, which I was proud of being, to a sophomore who is leading and putting his name up at the top of big meets was really exciting. I know, though, there's still a lot more room (for improvement). There are still people who beat me last year who shouldn't have. All of those things just lead into this year and just continuing to be hungry to move up higher and higher in the ranks."
On what he thinks his team is capable of this season...
"This group that we have right now has the most potential and probably the most youth in the SEC, in my opinion. The `potential' comment might be bold, but the guys who are here practicing right now are facing not only high expectations from Coach Watts and the university, but also our strong cross country alumni group. I feel that is going to eventually pay off with our team.
"Chris Bodary is doing awesome, and he's stepping up. He had a very similar summer to what I did my sophomore year to get me up into competition with guys. We have middle distance runners who are willing to step up and help the guys in any way they can. The team right now is just really strong. We haven't yet begun to talk about the season. I can sense that we are nervous, though, and I believe those nerves are going to pay off in a positive way for us. We realize how important this season is, because last season we should have gone to nationals, and we didn't. I feel like we have our backs against the wall, and there's only one way to go, and that's up. I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can do as a team when all of us toe the line at the same time."
On what it means to open the season at home and run at Lambert Acres...
"It's really positive for the guys, especially the ones who are local, to have family and friends come and see them run. I know for a lot of the parents, especially the first home meet coming out of high school, it's really emotional for them to see. They're so used to seeing them in their high school colors and then all of sudden they see them in the orange of Tennessee. It's an important meet for us, even though it's the first meet of the season. It's still important for us to take that first step in the season, and it's a great course to do it on."
Chris Rapp (SR, MASON, OHIO)
On how things went this summer in his training regimen...
"Every year, it's obviously our goal to make the national meet. It's not just to win or place well at the conference meet, but we want to do well at the regional meet and go to NCAAs. It's in the back of my head as a senior that I haven't made the national meet yet. Part of the reason I came here was because I knew this was a good program, and it was someplace where I knew I could be on a team that I could help make the national meet. I realized, not to put extra pressure on myself, that this is my last season. I didn't over-do it this summer, but that realization was kind of my motivation for every day. The motivation is always there, but even more so this summer just knowing this could be it. I still have two track seasons left, but as far as cross country, this could be it."
On how last season's positive results impacted his confidence and ability to be a leader...
"The confidence has definitely come from running for Coach Watts. Coming in my freshman year, I didn't make the trip to run at the conference meet. Going from that to two or three years later being able to help the team score and perform well, that definitely is a confidence builder. Part of that comes from personal improvement, but also it comes from gaining trust in Coach Watts' training over the years. When you see the results you get from doing his training program, it is without a doubt a confidence builder."
On what it means to open the season at home and run at Lambert Acres...
"It's actually about 20 minutes from campus, so it always impresses me when we go out there how many people come out to watch. There are students, friends of the team, parents and alumni. We get huge alumni support. Guys fly in from out of town to come watch home meets, so it helps to run out there. As far as the course itself, I've heard it's definitely the hardest course in the conference. We take pride in that. We love that. We go out and work out a lot there before home meets and especially if conference or regionals are out there. We're out there training on it. We know the course better than anyone. When other teams come in, we know they are thinking, `this is hard; this race is going to hurt.' We know the same thing, but we also know we've hammered workouts there, and we know what it's like to hurt on that course. It's definitely an advantage for us."
On who this team's leaders are, in addition to himself...
"Obviously, our top returner, Michael Spooner. You always look up to the best runner. There's also a junior, Steve Fassino, who is definitely a leader. A lot of guys look up to him. You can tell the leaders by who the guys ask about practice times and other things. They're the kind of guys the younger guys on the team should cling to. Steve Fassino is definitely one of them. Chris Kane, another senior, puts in a lot of quality time for the guys. I'd say those guys are key contributors to the leadership on the team."
On younger runners people should watch in 2009...
"You can definitely tell by attitude, too, in addition to talent. We have a sophomore, Chris Bodary, who is in great shape. He probably has one of the best attitudes on the team. He just wants to work hard. A freshman, Le Degfae, had really good high school success, as did a couple other guys coming in. You can tell they want to carry that attitude over. They were good in high school, but they realize it's a whole new game here. You can definitely tell they are ready to step it up. We had camp recently, and just getting out and running with some of us older guys you just tell they are ready to go. They knew, even before they got here, over their summer training that it's a whole step up. It's going to be harder, because it's Tennessee, Division I, and we're on the big scene. They know that now, and it's definitely reflected in how they trained this summer and how they have mentally prepared."