Jan. 16, 2009
"Keeping The Fire Burning"
Despite several challenges that faced them in 2008, the Lady Vols managed to "Keep The Fire Burning" for Head Coach J.J. Clark's program, utilizing a combustible combination of veterans and newcomers to create some shining moments.
Along the way, Team Orange overcame its hardships to challenge for another Southeastern Conference title, put itself into contention for NCAA hardware and collect a truckload of individual awards during the campaign.
"We had us some really unusually situations happen last year, as we came into the indoor season," Clark said. "We lost a couple of athletes in January, we had a medical situation and we worked with a volunteer coach in the sprint area, which we really didn't labor on. We just moved forward, and I was really proud about that."
The first sparks of the season occurred on Jan. 11-12, as Tennessee, the No. 3 team in the USTFCCCA Preseason Poll, headed up I-75 to compete in the Kentucky Invitational in Lexington. While there was a damper on the festivities due to All-American Sarah Bowman's emergency appendectomy just days before the meet, sophomore Lynne Layne and freshman Annie Alexander gave Clark reason to smile.
Layne rolled to a career best of 7.37 in the 60m dash final to claim victory, while Alexander was a rousing success in her first meet as a Lady Vol. The rookie came home with victories in the exhibition discus and in the shot put, charting a career best and NCAA provisional of 53-9 1/4 with the spheroid. Senior Courtney Champion also would add a provisional, clocking a 7.39 in the 60m prelims. Layne and Alexander were each honored by the SEC for their accomplishments.
Week two found UT in Happy Valley for the Penn State National meet on Jan. 25-26, and as has become customary there, the Lady Vols glowed. Alexander won her second straight shot put competition, while Champion grabbed first in the 60m and junior Katie Van Horn charted a triumph in the 5000m with a provisional mark of 16:41.72.
Bowman, just two weeks from having her appendix removed, ran the opening leg on UT's DMR unit, which managed a healthy provisional mark at 11:13.64 en route to victory. Adding other new or improved provisionals were Shanna Dickenson in the weight throw (64-1 1/4), Champion in the 60m (7.36), senior Cleo Tyson (7.26) and freshman Jeneba Tarmoh (7.38) in the 60m, Layne in the 200m (23.80), sophomore Phoebe Wright (2:08.44) and freshman Brittany Sheffey (2:08.85) in the 800m, and the 4x400m relay (3:39.85).
It was back to the Bluegrass State on Feb. 1-2, and Bowman demonstrated that her surgery would not put a damper on her junior year. In her first mile of the season, she unleashed a career-best and NCAA auto time of 4:37.86 to seize to honors. To boot, she added a provisional of 2:07.32 in the 800m to snare fourth.
Van Horn grabbed another victory, this time in the 3000 meters (9:35.97), while Tyson dropped her 60m readout to an automatic 7.25 in the prelims for the only other notable accomplishments.
Next was a trip to Blacksburg for the Virginia Tech Elite meet on Feb. 8-9, and the Big Orange came through with four victories and a total of 13 NCAA qualifying performances, including an automatic and meet record mark of 11:07.89 in the DMR by Sheffey, freshman Brittany Jones, Wright and Bowman.
Also victorious at V.T. were Champion, who seized first in the 60m and 200m dashes in 7.32 and 23.77 provisional improvements, and Wright, who dropped her PR in the 800m to 2:07.19. Alexander, meanwhile, upped her PR and NCAA mark in the shot to 55-5, junior Celriece Law provisionaled in the 60m hurdles (8.37) and Tyson did the same in the 200m (23.75).
Falling next on itinerary was a visit to Fayetteville, Ark., for the Tyson Invitational, Feb 15-16. The big-time meet brought only one win (Wright, 800 meters), but Bowman delivered another auto mark, lowering her PR to 4:36.51 against an elite field in the invitational mile. Senior LaTonya Loche got on the NCAA board with a provisional 53.75 in the 400m prelims, as did Van Horn in the 5K, with a PR 16:24.28 to take second in the championship division, Tarmoh in the 200m (23.27) and the 4x400m relay unit (3:36.05) of Champion, Loche, Jones and Tyson also had improvements.
With all the kindling in place, No. 4 Tennessee would show its readiness to burst into flames at the SEC Indoor Championships in Fayetteville on Feb. 29-March 2. So prepared were Clark's troops that they nearly won their third SEC crown under his watch before settling for second place with 84 points behind victorious LSU (116).
As she did the year before Bowman did all she could to stoke the fire, repeating as the mile and 3000m champion and again anchoring UT to victory in the DMR. Alexander, meanwhile, showed up big in her league meet debut, exploding with a school record of 57-2 to triumph in the shot and chart an NCAA auto along the way.
Champion added the surprise of the meet. Though always in the vicinity of a title, the senior finally captured her first SEC crown, speeding to first in the 200m dash in 23.23. Dickenson just missed adding another ten, taking second in the weight throw at 62-4 1/2.
"We demonstrated a lot of heart at the conference meet," Clark said. "We competed with a lot of hunger and focus, and I think you saw that in the performances of Annie, Courtney and Sarah, especially. We scored about all the points we could score, with the exception of Cleo getting hurt and Celriece just missing the final in the hurdles."
Armed with optimism on the heels of a solid SEC performance, the third-ranked club made its way back to Fayetteville for the NCAA Indoor meet on March 14-15. Despite Tyson being ineffective due to injury and Champion's inability to ignite like she did at SECs, the Lady Vols battled for a trophy until the final couple of events before taking eighth with 19 points.
Fanning Tennessee's flames the most was a four-alarm performance in the DMR, where Sheffey, Jones, Wright and Bowman sizzled to a school-record effort of 11:01.97 to claim UT's second national title in that event during the Clark era.
Bowman also chipped in individually in the mile, cruising to a career-best time of 4:36.00 to snare third-place honors. Also scoring were Champion in the 60m (8th) and 200m (8th), and the 4x4 tandem of Loche, Jones, junior Kimarra McDonald and Wright (8th).
In all, 10 Lady Vols combined to collect 15 USTFCCCA All-America certificates at the meet. That total was the most by any school at the NCAA Championships. Making the cut were Bowman (mile, DMR), Champion (60m, 200m), Law (60mH), Layne (200m), Loche (400m, 4x400mR), Jones (DMR, 4x400mR), McDonald (4x400mR), Sheffey (DMR), Tarmoh (60m) and Wright (DMR, 4x400mR).
Additionally, Clark was named the USTFCCCA South Region Indoor Coach of the Year, Bowman was chosen South Region Indoor Athlete of the Year, Alexander was tabbed SEC Indoor Freshman Field Athlete of the Year and Tarmoh was selected SEC Indoor Freshman Runner of the Year.
"At indoor nationals, we saw the team fight to get into the top 10, and that was very significant for us," Clark said. "We weren't really at full strength, having lost Cleo on top of losing a couple of others earlier from the cross country season who would have helped us. It was really a scrappy, dig-in and fight kind of indoor season for our team."
That kind of attitude is what it would take outdoors as well, and Tennessee packed that for its trip to Miami for the Hurricane Challenge on March 29. In a meet that transitioned the squad from indoors to outdoors in a warm climate, No. 21 UT captured four events and carded eight NCAA regional qualifying marks.
Three of the victors, Dickenson in the hammer (188-0), Bowman in the 1500m (4:16.89) and Loche in the 400m (54.29), charted regional marks with Bowman's representing a PR. Essex snared the other first in the pole vault at 11-11 3/4. Also adding regional marks were Alexander (175-8) and Dickenson (163-4) in the discus, Law in the 100m hurdles (13.59) and Tarmoh in the 100m (11.69) and 200m (23.71).
Another Florida meet followed on April 4-5, as Clark and company headed to Gainesville for the Pepsi Florida Relays. The Lady Vols were able to snag a pair of wins and a handful of qualifying marks before torrential rains brought an early end to the festivities.
Alexander was one of the triumphant ones, taking the discus crown at 175-8, while the 4x800m relay combination of McDonald, Wright, Sheffey and Bowman came home first in 8:33.87. UT also carded regional marks in the 100m, 800m, pole vault, hammer, shot and 4x100m relay. Essex's mark of 12-7 1/2 and Alexander's shot heave of 55-0 1/4 were the only personal bests of the bunch.
The weather also came into play at the first home meet of the season, the Sea Ray Relays on April 9-12, but Tennessee managed to pull off a program-first effort before thunderstorms halted the meet early on the final day. The Lady Vols collected victories in the 4x100m, 4x200m and distance medley relays, charting the most baton event victories in a single Sea Ray Relays by a UT squad.
The 4x100m lineup of Tarmoh, Tyson, Loche and Layne scorched the track in a season-best and regional-qualifying mark of 44.83. The win in the 4x2 was the home squad's first in that event since 1995.
Individually, Tennessee walked away with wins in the 100m hurdles, where Law ran a windy 13.24, and in the invitational discus, where rookie Alexander stretched the tape to 174-10. More importantly for her, though, she added a school record in the shot outdoors to match the one she earned indoors. Her mark of 57-3 was good for third place against a strong field.
Up to 16th in the rankings, Tennessee headed to Music City to take part in the Vanderbilt Invitational on April 18-19 for the second straight season. The result was a collection of five wins and the addition of more regional qualifiers.
Already leading the nation in the 1500m at 4:16.89 from the Hurricane Challenge, Bowman added an 800m national leader with a 2:04.48 output that left her first among collegians but second overall behind a post-collegiate competitor. In the discus, Alexander took the title, while Law grabbed the 100m hurdles crown in 13.66, Dickenson captured the hammer event in 187-2 and the 4x100m and 4x400m relay units pulled into the station first.
The always-exciting journey to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia came next on April 24-26, but the throws corps opted to head west in search of top marks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center meet and UCSD Triton Invitational. Both treks would prove fruitful.
Alexander's performance in the discus was the biggest thing to write home about, as she logged a career-best toss of 182-7 to win at the USOTC, while Dickenson and senior Amara McKell checked in with tosses of 178-0 and 156-10, respectively. Alexander came back with a 179-3 to place sixth at UCSD. McKell improved her career best to 158-11.
In Philly, Clark's charges were busy wrangling runner-up outings in three different baton events, including the 4x800m, 4x1500m and distance medley relays. The latter, with Sheffey, Loche, Wright and Bowman carrying the baton, came home with the second school DMR mark of the season. Matching the record-breaking performance of the indoor campaign, the outdoor version covered the distance in 10:50.51.
"Of course you want to win, but you have to, as a coach, realized what happened," Clark said. "There are very few teams ever that have put together performances like that, and we were the only team to run all three of those races and be able to be right there in every one of them. It was very, very impressive."
Other noteworthy efforts included Van Horn taking third and charting a provisional mark in the 10,000 meters in 34:52.97 and Law snagging third in the 100m hurdle finals in 13.37.
From there, it was on to Athens, Ga., the next weekend for a portion of the squad. The Georgia Invitational would provide one final tune-up meet prior to the championship portion of the outdoor schedule. By all accounts, it was a successful tune-up.
When the smoke had cleared, UT had won four of the six events it entered. Taking titles were Essex in the pole vault with a career outdoor best of 12-7 1/2, Alexander in the shot put at 51-10 and discus at 179-4, and sophomore Jackie Areson in the 1500m in 4:39.05. Shanna Dickenson came close to adding another triumph, taking second in the hammer at 186-0.
Standing at 19th in the USTFCCCA Rankings, Tennessee steamed into the SEC Outdoor Championships in Auburn, Ala., on May 15-18. The Lady Vols would not find as many triumphs as they had indoors, but the ones they got were historic.
First, there was Alexander, who not only made it a sweep of SEC Indoor and Outdoor shot put titles with her toss of 56-6 3/4 on her final attempt, but she also became the first freshman woman to take those crowns at the league meet and also toss in a discus title for good measure. Alexander did so with record-breaking proportions, landing a Trinidad & Tobago national record throw and stadium mark of 187-6 to ascend to the top step of the victory platform and deliver 20 big points to Tennessee en route to its fourth-place tally of 84.
Bowman added UT's third win of the meet, taking her second SEC 1500m crown in the past three seasons in a stadium record mark of 4:19.02. That first-place effort moved Bowman's total of SEC championships to eight for her career, placing her among the all-time leaders in that category at Tennessee. Her total of six indoor crowns already stands tied for No. 1.
For the second year in a row, Dickenson charted a top-three performance in the hammer throw, taking second this time at 194-3. She would add a third-place toss of 170-6 in the discus. Other thirds belonged to Law in the 100m hurdles (13.23) and Wright in the 800m in a career-best 2:04.92.
"I was very proud of the team," Clark said. "We've had a difficult year, just through all the injuries and things like that. We actually had a chance to be in the top three, and no one probably would have expected that out of us. We came very, very close to that, and it was just a tremendous effort."
Two weeks later, 14th-ranked Team Orange flared up again in Fayetteville, posting its best NCAA Mideast Regional finish since 2005 with a runner-up showing. More importantly, eight Lady Vols qualified to compete at the NCAA Championships in nine different events.
Alexander punched her ticket by winning the regional discus title at 183-10 and taking third in the shot at 55-5. Bowman (career-best 4:14.06) was second in the 1500m, Layne was second in the 100m (11.11) and third in the 200m (23.12), Tarmoh was second in the 200m (22.94) and third in the 100m (11.21), Wright was second in the 800m (2:06.26) and UT's 4x1 combo of Layne, Loche, Tarmoh and Tyson was second in 44.16. Law, meanwhile, made the NCAA Championships as an at-large entrant and as an alternate for the 4x1. All but Law garnered USTFCCCA All-Mideast Region accolades.
On June 11-14, just as Des Moines, Iowa, was enduring some of the worst flooding that area has ever seen, the NCAA Outdoor Championships were held at Drake Stadium. Though it took some traffic detours to get to the track, the facility was high and dry, and the meet went on without a hitch.
Again burning the brightest for the Lady Vols was Bowman, who toppled Alisa Harvey's 22-year-old record in the 1500m with a 4:07.50 performance. Not only was it a UT best, but that mark earned her third-place honors at the meet with the fourth fastest mark ever registered by a college woman. It also qualified her for the U.S. Olympic Trials later in the summer.
En route to 13th place in the team standings with 15 points, Tennessee also got scoring contributions from a fifth-place 4x1 result of 43.83, a sixth-place
800m showing from Wright (2:06.56) and a seventh-place effort of 13.57 in the 100m hurdles by Law.
"Most teams would have been elated to be in the top 13," Clark said. "For us, we just made it through a very difficult year. We had some youngsters who didn't return to school and some bumps along the way.
"We were still one of the best teams in the country, and we look to do even better. I am very proud of what this team has done, though, because it has stuck together and it has made us stronger as a unit."
At the NCAA meet, all but Alexander garnered USTFCCCA All-America acclaim, including relay member Tyson, who ended her career with 13 certificates. Her classmates and fellow sprint corps members Champion and Loche ended up with 12 apiece.
At the SEC level, Alexander duplicated her indoor honor by being named the SEC Outdoor Freshman Field Athlete of the Year, while Alexander, Sheffey and Tarmoh matched their indoor honors by being named to the SEC Outdoor All-Freshman Team.
Bowman, meanwhile, collected SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year accolades and later added ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America Second Team status and USTFCCCA NCAA Division I National Indoor Scholar-Athlete of the Year kudos.
Joining her on the SEC Academic Honor Roll were Areson, freshman Tyler Barnes, senior Rolanda Bell, Dickenson, Essex, freshman Holly Kane, Law, Layne, sophomore Jennifer Lewellen, McDonald, junior Leah Soro, Tyson, Van Horn and Wright.
While most of their teammates were done for the year, a handful of Lady Vols extended their seasons into the summer. At the U.S. Olympic Trials, Bowman would take the 1500 meters all the way to the final, finishing eighth in 4:16.54. Layne would make it to the second round of the 100m and 200m dashes, while Wright would end her campaign in the quarterfinals of the 800m.
Internationally, Tarmoh would strike gold in the 100m dash for the U.S. at the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in 11.37, while Layne represented the U.S. at the NACAC Under 23 Championships in Toluca, Mexico, and won a gold medal on the 4x100m relay. Alexander also was in action, taking part in Trinidad & Tobago's Olympic Trials and representing her country at the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Athletics Championships in Cali, Colombia, where she was third in the discus at 179-0 and sixth in the shot at 50-10 3/4.
"When I look back at the indoor and outdoor seasons as a whole, the thing I really want to accentuate is the heart and will these youngsters displayed when they were competing, especially when things weren't going right. I really want to tip my hat to them for the way they responded in good fashion when the chips were down. We eventually hired Pauline as our full-time sprint coach, and that only will strengthen us for the upcoming years."