Returning All-SEC performer Michael Spooner has led UT in two of his three races this season.
Oct. 29, 2009
By Eric Trainer, Associate Director of Media Relations
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It's crunch time for the University of Tennessee men's and women's cross country teams. The Vols and Lady Vols travel to Oxford, Miss., this weekend, where they will compete in the Southeastern Conference Championships Saturday morning at the Ole Miss Golf Course. Highlights from the competition will air on ESPNU's SEC Weekly program on Nov. 5 at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time.
Saturday's start for the 8,000-meter men's race is slated for 10 a.m. Central. The women are scheduled to follow with a 6,000-meter competition at 11 a.m. CT. The Vols finished fifth a year ago and were picked to repeat that performance by the league's coaches in their preseason poll. The Lady Vols, meanwhile, claimed third-place honors last season in Starkville, Miss., and were predicted to match that result in 2009 by the SEC skippers.
Going by individual rankings within the conference and the team's No. 3 rating in the NCAA South Region, the Big Orange women appear positioned to post their ninth consecutive top-three finish at the SEC meet. The goal, though, is to get back in the winner's circle, where the Lady Vols last appeared in 2005 in the final year of a three-season spree of league titles. To do that, however, the UT women must take care of their own business and try to get past nationally-ranked Florida (No. 5) and Arkansas (No. 29) and the rest of the league.
"I believe we have a good team, and we're excited to go and compete at the SEC Championships," UT Women's Coach J.J. Clark said. "Florida is ranked really high and is seen as the team to beat, Arkansas hasn't lost in quite some time and there are a couple of other schools (Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt) that were running well early and beat us this season.
"I think we've come along at the pace I wanted us to this season, and I believe we are going to come into the meet and do our very best. We'll have to see where that puts us and see how we match up with everyone."
Clark's squad is led by a trio of women who own the fastest three times in the SEC this season for 6,000 meters. Senior Jackie Areson (20:02) has paced UT in all four races and has gotten support from junior Brittany Sheffey (20:39) and senior Katie Van Horn (20:50), who earned All-SEC accolades in 2008 and 2007, respectively.
Sheffey was the squad's No. 2 runner the first three races of the campaign before running third two weekends ago at the Panorama Farms Invitational. Van Horn, a fifth-year senior with only cross country eligibility remaining this season, moved into the two slot after filling the three hole in her first two races of 2009. She and Sheffey have bounced back well after taking some time away from running a year ago due to injury and illness, respectively, and with Areson give Clark three solid up-front competitors each meet.
"These are upperclassmen, so I expect that," Clark said. "You have two seniors and a junior, and I expect that consistency and leadership. It's just good to see it happen. They've gotten better and better with each race this year, and that's what we are looking to do."
At the Panorama meet two weekends ago, the team got significantly stronger with the insertion of a pair of world-class middle distance runners. Sophomore Chanelle Price (21:37.12) and senior Phoebe Wright (21:44.29) competed on the trails for the first time in 2009 after taking time off to recover from a long summer of international competition on the oval. They ran fourth and fifth, respectively, for UT and helped the squad post a season-best one-through-five spread of 50.79 seconds in Charlottesville, Va.
"We're a completely different team (with them)," Clark said. "We had strong runs from Michele Levy and Ramzee Fondren, and they got help doing that when Phoebe and Chanelle were entered into the meet (Panorama Farms Inv.). It also helped our depth and our up-front running ability.
"It's just so happens that the timing (of their readiness for cross country) is now. Not many kids go to Europe to try to make the World Championships (Wright - who ran 2:00.40) or to the Pan Am Juniors (Price - lowered her PR to 2:01.33). You can't run year-round, so they took some time off and are now coming on as the year has progressed."
Like the UT women, the Vols are taking aim at a top-three finish and appear likely to continue their streak of top-half league performances. Tennessee has jockeyed between the third and fifth positions in the NCAA South Region and faces a stacked conference that boasts the No. 6 team in the nation in Alabama as well as the No. 24 and No. 28 squads in Auburn and Arkansas. Competing for titles or even cracking the top three against those types of foes and a tough top-to-bottom league takes an extra-special effort.
"We look forward to the SEC meet each season, and it is an event that the guys will remember for a lifetime," UT Men's Coach George Watts said. "Hopefully, they will perform at the level expected of a Tennessee cross country runner.
"On paper, Alabama is the favorite to win the meet with Arkansas considered the next best team. There are five more teams in contention for the three through seven spots. Our goal is to improve on last year's performance and this year's preseason pick. Although we have eight underclassmen competing, I believe we have the experience to reach our goal.
Indeed, the squad has turned in some very impressive performances this season and boasts a consistently strong top three of its own. That trio includes juniors Michael Spooner and Peter Sigilai, and freshman Leoule Degfae. They rank 11th (24:09.86), 12th (24:22.15) and 19th (24:#8.61) on the conference 8K performers list thus far in 2009.
Spooner, who has been UT's lead runner twice in three races this season, finished 13th at the 2008 SEC Championships to earn All-SEC honors and also claimed SEC All-Freshman Team status in 2007 when he placed 29th. Sigilai, a transfer from Rend Lake Community College, will be racing in his first SEC meet but has led the Vols to the finish line twice in 2009 and ran second to Spooner on the other occasion. Degfae, meanwhile, has held down the three spot in three of four outings and was fifth in the other.
The No. 4 and No. 5 positions typically have been filled by a rotation of four guys. That group includes seniors Mike Brodsky and Chris Kane, junior Steve Fassino and sophomore Chris Bodary, with the second-year performer coming off a 2008 campaign where he was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team for placing 43rd at the league meet. Other top-eight team finishers for UT this season have included juniors Stuart Chandler and David Clabo, and sophomores Joe Franklin and Tom Gilmartin. In addition to 2008 scorers Spooner and Bodary, Brodsky, Clabo, Franklin and Kane all ran in last year's SEC meet.
Watts firmly believes his group has put in the work and battled through a challenging enough schedule to prepare itself for the postseason run. His troops also have shown the ability to tighten the scoring pack, recording one-through-five spreads of 28.90, 38.10, 1:03.57 and 55.87 this season that are far and away better than 2008.
"We have competed against eight ranked teams this season, so I know we will be prepared for the competitiveness of an SEC Championship," the 15th-year skipper said. "The key to our success will be to have a 45-second to one-minute spread between our scoring five. I believe we have some guys that can be All-SEC (top 14). If both of those things happen, we should have a successful outing."