Peter Sigilai led UT in his first two meets as a Vol last season.
Sept. 1, 2010
By Eric Trainer, Associate Director of Media Relations
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- George Watts enters his 16th season as UT men's cross country coach with a great deal of optimism. His outlook stems from the fact he has four battled-tested seniors, three experienced juniors and a highly-touted newcomer who possesses the potential to deliver the Big Orange program its first men's NCAA Championship meet berth since 2005.
Watts, though, is well aware of the fact the conference and region meets feature a plethora of NCAA-caliber teams the Vols will have to overcome to enhance their chances for a bid to nationals. He is banking on his upperclassmen to set the tone and create a team committed to making its NCAA Championship bid goal a reality.
"We want to get back to the NCAA Championship meet, and the guys are talking about that already," Watts said. "I think they believe they can do it, whereas last year I don't think they believed they could. They've really focused on that with their summer training and bought into the idea of doing all the things it takes to be successful.
"Of course, we have to get a little bit better in the SEC and try to get up in the top four. We were sixth last year, and you really need to be in that top four to have a chance to qualify for NCAAs with the quality we have in our conference and region right now."
The Vols' pursuit of their postseason dreams will be spearheaded by the senior quartet of Michael Spooner, Peter Sigilai, Steve Fassino and Chris Rapp. Spooner, Sigilai and Fassino all played key roles on last year's team, while Rapp returns after redshirting due to injury in 2009.
Spooner, who has led Tennessee to the finish line in six of his last eight races over the past two seasons, is the squad's most-decorated runner. He is a three-time conference (All-SEC twice and SEC All-Freshman in 2007) and two-time All-South Region performer, finishing 11th and 17th, respectively, at the league and region meets as a junior.
When Spooner wasn't setting the pace last season, Sigilai was. The first Kenyan runner to join the UT program wasted very little time in making an impact. Right out of the gate, he was Watts' first finisher at the Crimson Classic (8th overall) and Greater Louisville Classic (11th). He would later run second and third for UT, respectively, at the SEC and NCAA South Regional with finishes of 22nd and 37th.
After contributing to the team total in two of the last three races in 2008, Fassino made great strides in 2009. He was in UT's scoring five in four of six races as a junior, running fifth for the Vols and winding up 43rd overall at the SEC Championships. His work ethic is respected by his peers, and he will be among those setting the tone in 2010.
The final member of the foursome is Rapp, who is welcomed back into the mix after a season off. His 2008 campaign saw him develop into a consistent performer who scored on five of six occasions. In postseason competition, he held down the No. 4 slot for the Big Orange, finishing 39th at SECs and 33rd at the NCAA South Regional.
That nucleus will be bolstered by a mix of veterans and a highly-touted newcomer. Juniors Chris Bodary, Joe Franklin and Tom Gilmartin, and true freshman Jake Rainey offer Watts a solid supporting cast to complement his seniors.
Bodary has run in all 12 races for Tennessee over the past two seasons, scoring in seven of those and earning SEC All-Freshman accolades in 2008. His continued progress will be instrumental in how the Vols fare in 2010.
A standout middle distance runner, Franklin has never figured into the scoring equation for the Big Orange in cross country, but he has the potential to do so. Watts is hopeful the third-year performer can take a big step forward this season on the course and help the squad during championship season.
Gilmartin, meanwhile, saw his first collegiate action last season after sitting out 2008 to focus on a rigorous academic program. He made steady advances through the cross country and track seasons, and his continued improvement bodes well for the team.
Rainey comes to Big Orange Country after a stellar prep career at Clarksville's Rossview High School. Watts compares the state 1600m and 3200m track champ's abilities coming out of high school to those of Spooner.
"We have a good group of seniors returning, with Michael Spooner, Chris Rapp, Steve Fassino and Peter Sigilai leading the way," Watts said. "So, we have four important seniors to go along with our top signee, Jake Rainey, who should make an immediate impact on the team and hopefully then in the conference. I think Jake would be a guy who could be a contender for the top freshman finisher in the SEC.
"You add Chris Bodary, who improved quite a bit during track season, and I think he'll make a huge impact as well. I'm counting on those six guys, along with Gilmartin and later in the season, Franklin, as our main, core guys, to lead the team."
Besides Rainey, the other newcomers include freshmen Ford Bell, Stephen Derlath, Tyler Freeman and Alex McCandless, and junior Garrek Thompson, a transfer from LSU who will sit out this season. Watts indicated Freeman could contribute the earliest of that bunch, and that Derlath and McCandless remind him of Rapp and Fassino as rookies.
The development of additional runners would help offset the loss of two key members of last year's team in Mike Brodsky and Leoule Degfae. Brodsky graduated after scoring in five of six meets, mainly at No. 4. Degfae, meanwhile, departed after contributing to the team tally in all six races, primarily in third position, and earning SEC All-Freshman kudos to boot.
"One of the things we'll miss about Mike Brodsky is his approach to practice every day," Watts said. "He came to practice wanting to get better and always had a positive attitude and worked really hard.
"We lost Leoule due to personal issues - he had to transfer to an in-state school closer to home. Losing him could potentially hurt us, but we need to tighten up and move forward."
The Vols will try to do just that when they open the season with their first two meets at Percy Warner Park in Nashville. UT competes in the 5K Belmont-VU Opener on Sept. 3 and the 8K Commodore Classic on Sept. 18. Next come two more 8K races, the Brooks Paul Short Run on Oct. 1 and the ISU Pre-Nationals Invitational on Oct. 16. The latter trip will be the only one the UT men make without the Lady Vols, who will instead travel to the Penn State National on that weekend.
The postseason part of the slate commences on Nov. 1 at the 8K SEC Championships in Columbia, S.C. UT will then run in the 10K NCAA South Regional in Hoover, Ala., on Nov. 13, hoping to earn a bid to the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 22.
In order to make that final step to nationals, Watts is looking for his leaders to light the way. He expects that group to include Rapp, Fassino and Spooner.
"Rapp, Fassino and Spooner all have different personalities, but they complement each other really well," Watts said. "The nice thing about the three of them is that they want to be team captains. A lot of times, you have a vote and it becomes a popularity contest, but these three guys want to be captains and that's what you've got to have.
"You can have an average team, but if you have good leaders they're going to perform above that. I like that aspect coming from them, and they're all well-organized and have worked together to get the guys focused on getting ready for the season."