March 2, 2007

By Brett Hess
Special for

It was an ambush last weekend in Lexington -- there was no other way to describe it.

As Sarah Bowman stalked her counterpart during the anchor leg of the distance medley relay, she was serving notice that the Tennessee women were back.

Bowman cruised to the tape, clinching the Lady Vols' Southeastern Conference Indoor Championship. It may be Tennessee's second such title in three years, but this one came unexpectedly. At least to those outside of Knoxville.

"Our women showed great courage and competitive spirit," said Tennessee coach J.J. Clark. "We were ranked fifth (in the conference) but we knew we could be a factor (for the championship)."

Tennessee won the meet with 120 points. Georgia (ranked third) was runner-up with 103 points. The Lady Vols also beat South Carolina, LSU and Auburn, all of which where ranked ahead of them.

In many ways, Bowman's performances in the meet were a microcosm of the Lady Vols' performance as a team. The sophomore raced three times, trailed in all three and ultimately won each race. In fact, she didn't lead in any of them until late.

Bowman won the mile and 3,000-meter run before her anchor leg of the DMR. In none of those was she considered the favorite. And that was just fine with Clark.

"She was trailing by design," Clark said of Bowman's race strategy. "It's great when you can trail, follow the others around the track and then use your speed as an asset."

Bowman, of Warrenton, Va., was the top-ranked high school miler in the nation her senior year and No. 1 in the 800 as a junior. So when she arrived in Knoxville, great things were expected. Instead, injuries headlined her indoor season as a freshman and she didn't compete in the mile until the SEC Indoor meet. A third in the mile at that meet was just a hint of what was possible. But even a victory in the 1,500 at the SEC Outdoors left Bowman thirsty.

"It was a big transition from high school to college," Bowman said. "I wasn't into mileage in high school and it was hard. It was a mental challenge. I injured my abductor muscles early in indoors and I just never felt comfortable."

The acclimation process to college-level training continued through last summer and the young lady who considers herself as a "mile specialist" placed seventh in the SEC Cross Country Championships last fall. And, with another winter of college training under her feet, Bowman is back to 100-percent now.

"[SEC Championships] was the first time everything just flowed," Bowman said. "I finally have the rhythm back."

Bowman certainly looked like she was in rhythm Sunday when she out-dueled Georgia's Natalie Picchetti on the last lap of the mile run. Bowman passed Picchetti at the start of the final lap before the Georgia runner responded with a surge of her own. Finally, in the last 50 meters, Bowman sprinted away to a one-second victory (4:44 to 4:45). A year ago, a more timid Bowman may have backed off from Picchetti's final challenge.

"Sarah has a lot of strength," Clark said. "And that helps her late in races. That, and she is very competitive."

While Bowman will always be known for her speed, Clark said it is that strength that makes her stand out.

"She is able to do a lot of things," Clark said. "She's all-SEC in cross country, she wins the mile, the 3,000 and anchors the DMR all at the SEC Championships."

Clark said Bowman's competitiveness came out before the DMR when the team knew a victory would be needed to win the SEC title.

"She couldn't wait to get out there and race," Clark said. "And the fact that she wasn't in the lead when she got the baton just fueled her desire."

But by Monday, both Clark and Bowman were tired of talking about the SEC title. There are bigger fish to fry next weekend: the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark. The Lady Vols begin this past weekend ranked tied for ninth in the country (and the fifth SEC school), but flying under the radar is out of the question now.

"We're making a statement and as a team, everybody is improving together," Bowman said. "I don't think we're going to Arkansas looking for a certain amount of points or a certain finish, but we will just put our hearts out there."

Said Clark: "This is when you want to run your best. We ran well in Lexington and now we just want to hold it another two weeks. It really doesn't matter what your rankings are. It's based on what you did, not what you can do."

The Lady Vols "can do" quite a bit in Fayetteville. Although Bowman (and the DMR) were the only event winners, Tennessee athletes placed

"I can definitely say this championship didn't come from one area," Clark said, mentioning that the runner-up finishes came from field (weight throw), sprints (60 meters), hurdles (60 hurdles) and middle distance (800 meters).


*Also at the SEC women's meet, Kerron Stewart of Auburn won both the 60 and 200, setting a meet record of 22.46 in the later.

*The Arkansas men won their 81st SEC championship behind the Razorbacks' traditional strength in the jumping and distance events. Ironically, the Razorbacks set a personal-low with one individual title -Nkosinza Balumba in the triple jump - but won because of 31 all-Southeastern accolades.

*The Wisconsin men and Minnesota women won the Big Ten Championship meets. Demi Omole won the 60m and Joe Detmer the heptathlon as the Badgers won their seventh straight title and 10th in the last 13 years. Minnesota ended Michigan's two-year hold on the team title despite the Wolverines winning seven events.





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