Jan. 13, 2009
In the game of cards, a long suit including high cards is known as a "Strong Suit." That's just what University of Tennessee Head Women's Track & Field Coach J.J. Clark has in his possession as he enters his seventh season as the wheeler and dealer of the Big Orange program.
Not only does the UT skipper have several returning aces in his 2009 hand, his deck also is comprised of face cards in all the event areas. Though he lost several big point cards due to the annual coach's discard time known as graduation, Clark returns a strong hand and bolstered his position with a good draw via recruiting.
"When you are talking about a strong suit, the implication is that we have personnel here who are capable of getting the job done," Clark said. "The job to which we are referring is SEC and NCAA level competition. We have student-athletes who are talented enough to score at the NCAA level, with the idea that if we get enough we can place high at the championship meet.
"When we say we have a strong suit, it means we have a good combination of prepared and talented student-athletes. Whether it be known high scorers like Annie Alexander, Sarah Bowman, Celriece Law, Lynne Layne and Phoebe Wright, or some others in our deck, such as Jackie Areson, Brittany Jones, Chanelle Price, Brittany Sheffey and others, we have many cards to play."
Before he embarks on a new game in 2009, Clark must account for several trump cards that no longer will be on the table. Sprint All-Americans Courtney Champion, LaTonya Loche and Cleo Tyson, who combined for 37 All-America awards, two-time All-America thrower Shanna Dickenson and SEC scoring thrower Amara McKell have graduated. Also gone is All-America sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh, who transferred.
"We lost some great scorers, SEC Champions and Lady Vols with Courtney, Cleo, LaTonya and Shanna," Clark said. "On the other hand, we have developed some youngsters, and now you have Sarah moving to the forefront with her abilities and Annie, Celriece, Lynne, Phoebe and others developing. We also brought in some new people, like Chanelle, to fill those holes.
"Even though we've lost some key people, I feel very positive about the structure of our team that we'll be able to move forward and be a strong team through this upcoming season."
The lead card in Clark's approach will no doubt be the ace of diamonds, Bowman. The senior, who heads up the team's deepest area in the distance corps, is the squad's most decorated returnee. The six-time All-American has eight SEC titles to her credit, including six individual indoor crowns that tie her for the most in UT history.
Bowman is coming off back-to-back SEC Indoor meets where she swept titles in the mile, 3000 meters and distance medley relay. Outdoors, she will be aiming for her third SEC 1500m crown this season.
At the NCAA level, Bowman paced the Lady Vols' DMR to victory in a school-record 11:01.97 at the indoor meet a year ago and will be attempting to improve upon NCAA finishes of third in both the mile and 1500m in 2008. In the 1500m, the native of Warrenton, Va., charted a school record time of 4:07.50 at the NCAA meet, posted the fourth-best collegiate time ever run and earned a trip to the U.S. Olympic Trials, where she made the finals.
Also faring well in Des Moines, Iowa, last June was Wright, a junior from Red Bank High School in Chattanooga who has developed immensely from joining the team as a walk-on freshman to placing sixth and garnering All-America acclaim a year ago. She carded a career-best readout of 2:04.38 and an Olympic Trials qualifying mark in the NCAA semifinal round.
As a rookie, Sheffey combined with Bowman and Wright on UT's victorious DMR efforts at both the SEC and NCAA Indoor Championships. Individually, the product of Bellport, N.Y., finished fourth in the mile at SEC Indoors and fifth in the 1500m at SEC Outdoors. She also is a possibility to score at 3K.
Van Horn, who hails from Glendora, N.J., made her first NCAA showing in 2008, finishing 11th indoors in the 5000 meters. She also was UT's top long distance ace at the SEC Indoor meet, running third in the 3000m and fifth in the 5000m to help her squad to a runner-up performance.
McDonald, another Jersey gal from Lumberton, turned the corner as a junior, scoring indoors and out at the conference meet in the 800 meters in seventh and the 4x400m relay in eighth, respectively. For the second straight season, she lended a hand to UT's SEC Champion DMR unit, and she picked up her first All-America accolade for running a leg on the squad's eighth-place NCAA Indoor 4x400m relay quartet.
With regard to Bell and Areson, there's no bluffing as to their importance to the squad. Bell, a product of Laurelton, N.Y., turned in a seventh-place SEC Outdoor showing in the 1500m last season and has posted several point-producing efforts at that distance throughout her career. Areson, meanwhile, is coming off a strong cross country season and hopes to match or better her seventh-place SEC mile finish or steeplechase outcome of 2007 and leave behind the injuries that limited her a year ago. The native of Delray Beach, Fla., is capable of contributing at any distance from the mile to the 5K.
The infusion of distance talent through recruiting is no luck of the draw, but rather a calculated move. Clark expects two pairs to have the quickest impact, including the 800m duo of Chanelle Price and Ramzee Fondren and the mile-and-up combo of Ally Colvin and Elizabeth Altizer.
By all accounts Price is a lock, coming out of Easton (Pa.) High School as the best prep 800m runner in America in the past 25 years. Her 2:01.61 time against a world-class field at last season's Prefontaine Classic and her appearance at the U.S. Olympic Trials are just two examples of why she should be ready to hit the ground running as a collegian.
Fondren, a multi-time state half-mile champ from Detroit's Renaissance High School, is on the mend from nagging injuries that shortened her senior season and will join Wright, Price, McDonald and sometimes Bowman to give Clark another formidable 800m cadre. Tennesseans Colvin (Maryville/Maryville H.S.) and Altizer (Bartlett/St. Benedict at Auburndale), meanwhile, are hoping to parlay the training of cross country during the fall into success on the oval in their first year as Lady Vols, adding depth to an already strong middle and long distance corps.
"We are fairly strong at all of the distances, from 800m to 5K, and we have some people who could step up," Clark said. "We also have some who are just coming into the program, like Chanelle, Ramzee, Ally and Elizabeth, who only add to the strength and depth we already have."
While Clark was able to keep many of the distance cards in his hand, there has been a reshuffling of the deck when it comes to the sprint group. UT lost four of a kind in All-Americans Champion, Loche, Tarmoh and Tyson, but retains three of a kind in national honorees Law, Layne and Jones.
Also of key importance, Pauline Davis-Thompson, who served as a volunteer coach last season after the departure of Caryl Smith Gilbert, has been brought into the fold full time. With her on campus and able to devote full attention to her charges, it will be interesting to see how much further the returnees develop.
Law offers the broadest array of scoring ability, lending her talents to hurdles, sprints and jumps. The four-time All-American from Denver's Montbello High School has scored at the NCAA level in the 60- and 100-meter hurdles and with the 4x100m relay, and she's added long and triple jump to that mix at the SEC meets, thanks to aid from volunteer coach Charlie Simpkins. After an off-season clean-up job on her knee, the senior is healthy and focused on improving over a seventh-place 100m hurdle outcome at the 2008 NCAA Outdoor meet.
A junior, Layne seemed to thrive under Davis-Thompson's tutelage a year ago. Not only did the four-time All-American qualify for the NCAA meets in five different events (two indoors/three outdoors), she also made it to the second round of the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100 and 200 meters. Additionally, the New Rochelle, N.Y., product scored in two events indoors and out at the SEC level in 2008, fashioning a fourth-place outcome in the 100m at the outdoor meet and taking fifth in the 60m indoors as well as snaring sixth-place honors in the long jump at those competitions.
While Jones does not have the experience that her teammates do, she did hit the All-America jackpot twice as a rookie. She did so by running the 400m leg on UT's triumphant NCAA DMR unit and handling a 400m hitch on UT's eighth-place 4x4, both at the indoor meet, before sitting out the outdoor season to resolve some injury issues. One of the top recruits in the country coming out of Pompano Beach, Fla., two seasons ago, she is capable of delivering winner-take-all performances in the 400 meters once Davis-Thompson gets her dialed in.
A pair of newcomers, Ashley Harris and Ellen Wortham, are projected to fill in and bridge the gap created by the loss of the departed sprinters and also offer wildcard possibilities. Harris is a talented competitor from Austell, Ga., and South Cobb High School who will join Layne as a short sprinter and fortify the efforts of Law and Layne in the horizontal jumps.
Wortham, meanwhile, comes from nearby Maryville High School and will give Tennessee another hurdler, specializing in the long hurdles with a mark of 42.07 in the 300m barriers that ranked No. 9 on the Track & Field News national prep list a year ago. A jack of all trades, she also is a highly capable long and high jumper and long sprinter, and will offer Clark an opportunity for points in the multi-events along with returning pentathlete/heptathlete Jená Murphy, a product of Germantown (Tenn.) High who was 13th at SEC Outdoors last season in her first stab at the hept.
Transfer Amanda Alexander, a product of Nashville's Hillwood High School, has joined the squad after completing her degree at Chattanooga and moving to the sister school in Knoxville to begin graduate work and run her final year. Alexander most likely will try to earn a spot on the travel squad via the 400m dash or 400m hurdles.
"It's not a very big group, but it's a good group," Clark said of the sprints/jumps/hurdles/multis contingent. "There are a lot of areas being covered by a few people.
"Lynne Layne and Celriece Law have had some successes on the SEC and NCAA level and are All-Americans, and they represent the veteran group. Brittany Jones is young and has not really run an open 400, so we're looking forward to that. Ashley Harris is looking good and showing great promise, and we are hoping for Ellen Wortham to provide some points in some areas and do so along with Jena' Murphy in the pentathlon and heptathlon."
The throws area has grown to seven members, despite the losses of Dickenson and McKell to graduation. The queen of this corps, without a doubt, is Alexander, the product of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. As a freshman, Alexander twice broke her country's national record in the discus, with the first instance enabling her to also win an SEC title at 187-6. Not only did Alexander win the SEC discus crown, she swept the indoor and outdoor league titles in the shot put as well, becoming the first freshman in conference history to accomplish that hat trick. During her rookie season, she established UT marks indoors and out, at 57-2 and 57-3, respectively.
The disappointment of failing to score at either NCAA meet has left Alexander hungry for more heading into her sophomore campaign. After arriving only in January prior to her first collegiate season, a complete year of weight training should do wonders to help her continue to push the envelope.
Assistant coach John Frazier will be busy developing the rest of his group and hoping to produce other difference-makers from the largest throws corps in recent Lady Vol history. Among the returnees are sophomores Holly Kane and Taylor Rotella and redshirt freshman Brittany Napoli.
Among that trio, Knoxvillians Kane (Karns H.S.) and Rotella (Bearden H.S.) have the only experience in SEC competition via their participation in the 2008 SEC Outdoor meet. Kane, who focuses solely on the javelin, charted a finish of 11th in 2008 and had a best fling of 133-6. Rotella, meanwhile, was 16th in the hammer throw with a toss of 136-1, but she'll miss the entire 2009 campaign with a knee injury.
Napoli, who calls Howell, N.J., home, competed in the outdoor-season-opening Hurricane Challenge before an injury forced her to redshirt the remainder of her rookie year. If they continue to develop, she and Kane should move into the scoring ranks at the SEC level. Frazier also would like to see Rotella continue her improvement and do the same in the weight and hammer.
New to the deck for 2009 are three freshmen. Alexander's countrywoman, Akeela Bravo, has followed her path to the United States, while Laquoya Kelly has made her way to Rocky Top from Music City and Christine Coppola has chosen the same university as fellow New Jersey product Napoli.
As a prep at River Dell Regional High School near River Edge, N.J., Coppola focused on the discus and recorded a best mark of 136-7. The 5-11 rookie seems to have a big upside, as do Bravo and Kelly. Bravo owns career bests of 43-7 1/4 in the shot and 125-9 in the discus from St. Francois Girls' College, while Kelly brings marks of 40-8 in the shot and 113-0 in the discus from Hunters Lane High School.
"In the shot and discus -- and she may be throwing the weight around a little bit, too -- Annie can be very successful and help us in gaining some valuable points," Clark said. "John Frazier, our throws coach, is very optimistic about Annie and Laquoya, one of our freshmen.
"Holly Kane and Brittany Napoli, really are javelin throwers, but Holly may help out in the weight/hammer areas. We'll see how that goes. We're looking forward to getting everyone out there, and hopefully we'll get some surprises."
Volunteer coach David Job will begin the season with three student-athletes in his pole vault corps. Senior Alicia Essex is the lone vaulter with collegiate experience, and the product of Purcellville, Va., could play a key point-producing role for Team Orange in 2009. She stands third indoors (12-11.75) and outdoors (12-7.50) on the school's all-time performers list in that event, and has scored for UT in the past two SEC Indoor meets.
Sophomore Ginny Browning returns, but the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett graduate has yet to see action as a Lady Vol in a collegiate meet. New to the team is freshman Lauren Molchan, out of Laurel Highlands High School in Uniontown, Pa. She brings a personal record of 10-9 as a starting point for Job's development process.
"Alicia really adds to the depth of the team and is another weapon to help us accomplish our goals," Clark said. "She's scored at the SEC meet for us before and has supported our team's efforts in that area. I watched her jump in practice recently, and she looked good and very dynamic for this time of the year."
Across the board, Clark seems pleased with the hand he's been dealt, and he likes having contributors in most every event. "It's hard to cover all the bases, but we do have a nice blend this season," Clark said. "We have a very good throws program, middle distance program and sprints program. We also have some long and triple jumpers in Celriece Law, Lynne Layne and Ashley Harris and have added a high jumper/hurdler in Ellen Wortham. It adds some nice depth and dimension to our program in all the areas.
"You just have to plan to do that and go recruit the components to make that happen. Hopefully, you bring the right group in and fill all the voids. You can't have it all, but we are doing a good job of having a nice balanced attack in all the different events." With that said, the 2009 Lady Volunteers will undertake a schedule designed to provide challenging meets in top-notch venues that elicit improvement and qualifying marks when that goal is on the table.
During the indoor campaign, Tennessee will return to Lexington to compete in the Kentucky Invitational on Jan. 16-17 for the second consecutive season. Not only will Nutter Field House provide a good location for a season-opening meet, but it will offer the Big Orange a preview of this year's SEC Championships venue.
Week two will bring a new wrinkle, as Clark takes his squad to College Station, Texas, to go head-to-head with Texas A&M in a dual meet on Jan. 24. Again, the competition and venue will set the stage for good performances, but Clark also likes the fact his team can try out the oval that will host the NCAA Indoor Championships in March.
Familiarity returns the following week, as the Orange and White goes back to Happy Valley once again to take part in the Penn State National Invitational, Jan. 30-31. PSU's Horace Ashenfelter III Track has been good to the Lady Vols during the Clark era, and 2009 should be no exception.
For the first time since 2003, Clark will take his troops to New York to compete in the New Balance Collegiate Invitational at the famed Armory, Feb. 6-7. Then, it's on to Fayetteville, Ark., the next weekend, Feb. 13-14. to take part in another highly-competitive open type meet, the Tyson Invitational.
After five meets of preparing his charges on the country's finest ovals, Clark will lay his cards on the table at the SEC Indoor Championships in Lexington on Feb. 27-March 1 and at the NCAA Indoor Championships in College Station, March 13-14. Tennessee will be trying to improve upon 2008 indoor finishes of second in the SEC and eighth nationally. Under Clark's watch, the Lady Vols have posted two SEC Indoor crowns (2005, 2007) and five straight top-three league finishes, while posting an NCAA title in 2005 and resting among the nation's top 10 indoors in four of the past five seasons.
Outdoors, UT comes out of the gates on March 27-28 with split squads traveling to the Yellow Jacket Invitational in Atlanta and the Stanford Invitational in California. The West Coast trip will be confined to the distance crew, while Georgia will be on everyone else's mind.
Following a jaunt to Gainesville for the Pepsi Florida Relays on April 3-4, the squad from Rocky Top will return to Tom Black Track at LaPorte Stadium for back-to-back home meets. The annual Sea Ray Relays take place April 8-11, while the Lady Vols will take part in a college division of the Volunteer Track Classic for the first time ever on April 17-18.
Another split-squad situation occurs on the weekend of April 23-25, as the majority of the team heads to Philadelphia for the historic Penn Relays. The throws corps, on the other hand, will travel to the West Coast for the second straight season to compete in the UCSD Triton Invitational at LaJolla, Calif.
May 9 will mark another home meet and another first-time event, as the Tennessee Invitational is contested. It will be the final opportunity of the season for tune-up work, as the championship portion of the schedule follows.
This season's run of championship meets begins on May 14-17, as the SEC Outdoor meet is held in Gainesville. The NCAA Mideast Regional follows on May 29-30 in Louisville, Ky., while the NCAA Outdoor meet is in Fayetteville, Ark. for the first time, on June 10-13.
Tennessee will be trying to improve upon a fourth-place effort at SEC Outdoors and push its way back into the top three for the first time since taking third in 2005. After finishing second at the regional meet and tying for 13th nationally, Clark's focus also will be turned toward improvement at those events. The goal is to return to the national top ten outdoors as the club did with finishes of seventh and fourth, respectively, in 2004 and 2005.
With the presence of aces in all the event areas, and a great number of the same types of cards in the deck, Clark and his staff definitely have at their disposal, a "Strong Suit." If they play their cards right, they could very well end up with a winning hand.
"Looking at the distance, sprints, throws, jumps and hurdles, we've done a better job of putting that together," Clark said. "In the sprints, we have both long and short. In the distances, we go 800 to 5K.
"We have a nice blend of athletes, and we're talking quality, too. I'm very happy with the roster we have, and we'll see how it goes as the season progresses."