Nov. 16, 2002
MARYVILLE--Tennessee's cross country team decisively put its fourth-place regional ranking to rest by claiming victor's laurels in an upset at the 10K NCAA South Region Championships Saturday at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville, Tenn. Nationally unranked Tennessee's 51 points ran past Alabama's 79 points, although the Tide entered the race as heavy favorites as the top-ranked team in the South Region and ranked 25th nationally. Tennessee won its first South Region title since the meet was established in 1997 to ensure the Volunteers will join the NCAA Championships field Nov. 25.
Tennessee got a strong effort from all seven of its competitors, as each Vol placed in the top 28. As testament to Tennessee's team victory, six Vols ran well enough to earn All-Region honors, though only the top five score for each team. Tennessee's tightly-packed spread of 35.60 seconds between its top-five runners stands a mere four-tenths of a second behind the squad's best effort of the year, a statistic made more impressive in light of the South Regional being 2,000 meters longer than any of the Vols' five races this season.
"Our five-man spread was close to being the best it has been all year," head coach George Watts said. "We had six guys make All-Region. Our sixth and seventh men were critical because they were ahead of a lot of the other teams' fourth and fifth men. You can't underestimate their contribution to the team effort. At about 3 3/4 miles [a little more than halfway through the race], I assessed we had a chance to win. I looked into the eyes of our guys, and I could see that they thought we could win, too. I don't want to single out any one guy because they all ran awesome."
Head coach George Watts put in a good bid for South Region Coach of the Year honors by leading his charges to the NCAA Championships in consecutive years for the first time in his head-coaching career. The last time Tennessee went to the NCAA meet as a team in consecutive years was in 1994, coached by Doug Brown, and 1995, coached by Watts. Additionally, Watts' Vols won the school's first NCAA South Region title. The most recent approximation came in 1995 when the Vols won the District 3 title to advance to the NCAA field.
Amidst rain, dropping temperatures through the mid 40s and a puddle-crowned course, the Volunteers proved more than capable mudders as Patrick Gildea, Tim Kelly, co-captain Scott DeFilippis, co-captain Eric Bell, Steve Klein and Ed Davis earned All-Region acclaim. Rob Cloutier missed the All-Region by just three spots.
With each stride uncertain, Tennessee rallied for a strong closing charge to seal the victory and punch its ticket for the NCAA Championships. Senior Patrick Gildea led the Vols for the third time this season with his fifth-place, 32:29.41 effort, his highest career finish in a championship meet. A model of consistency, Gildea has finished no lower than third in the Vol pack in all six races this season.
"This is definitely what we had expected and planned for," Gildea said. "Looking back now that the race is over, it was better than I could have ever dreamt. The win today is a testament to our program and our history. We ran our races for them [the Vol alums in attendance]. Every 100 meters there was someone else screaming for you. It was like nothing else I've ever been in."
Kelly rebounded from a tough SEC race to take sixth in 32:29.41, also his career-best championship placing.
"So much of running is mental," Kelly said. "I had to convince myself my fitness was where it needed to be. I don't think there was a doubt in anybody's mind we would qualify [for NCAAs]. We knew we would bounce back after a tough race at the SECs. Coach Watts didn't put pressure on us. He just showed confidence."
Senior DeFilippis remained solid after leading the Vols two weeks ago at the SEC meet. DeFilippis took eighth in 32:36.66, his career-best finish in the postseason.
"It's a great feeling," DeFilippis said. "It was great to have the former Vols cheering and yelling. It was inspiring. It was a tough course today. I need to run faster if I want to finish in the top 50 at nationals. But when you're eighth, it's not a bad thing when two of your teammates are ahead of you."
Senior Bell also posted his lifetime-best postseason finish with a 13th-place, 32:54.45 effort. Super-steady Klein wrapped up Tennessee's scoring five with a 19th-place, 33:05.01 effort, a lifetime-best effort for the championship portion of the schedule. Klein joins Gildea as the only Vols to score in all six of the season's races. In proof of Tennessee's superlative team effort, redshirt freshman Davis took 24th in 33:05.01 and earned All-Region honors, but his score didn't even count toward the team total. Meanwhile, senior Cloutier wrapped up the action for Tennessee by placing 28th in 33:24.88, just missing the top 25 cutoff for All-Region honors.
The noticeable presence of the former Vols in town to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1972 NCAA Championship charged the atmosphere. From Lou Schneider (1946-48) to Stewart Ellington and Tony Cosey, Vol cross country All-Americas from the 1990s, the former Vols cheered on the current Tennesseans with unwavering zeal. In a who's who of Tennessee cross country/track and field, every coach at the helm for a Volunteer NCAA title was in attendance. Stan Huntsman led the 1972 NCAA cross country champions and the 1974 NCAA Outdoor track and field squad. Meanwhile, Doug Brown, who ran on both the 1972 and 1974 NCAA teams and coached the 1991 Vols to the NCAA Outdoor title, was also in attendance. Also, Bill Webb, head coach of the 2001 NCAA Outdoor and 2002 NCAA Indoor Champions, took in the cross country action. Additionally, Watts, obviously, and assistant track coach Vince Anderson, architects of the 2001 and 2002 NCAA titles, were also in attendance.
The 1972 Vols were honored prior to the awards ceremony. The present members of the 1972 team circled up and did their victory cheer from 30 years ago. When the current crop of Vols were announced South Region champions at the awards presentation, they paid homage to their Vol ancestors and celebrated like their 1972 comrades in orange.
"I couldn't be happier for my guys, for their teammates who were out here cheering them on and for all the Tennessee alums here at the meet today," Watts said. "With the cross country reunion this weekend, we had former runners all over the course cheering the team on. We need to enjoy the win today. However, we've got to be ready to go tomorrow to get ready for the NCAA Championships."