The Lady Vols get ready to run.
Sept. 9, 2002
Fans of games and puzzles, and those who follow pop culture, will remember a multi-colored brainteaser that took the world by storm in the 1980s and remains a popular seller even today. The Rubik's Cube, designed by Hungarian lecturer Erno Rubik, is the ultimate test in patience and reasoning skills, as enthusiasts attempt to rearrange intermixed colors of moveable blocks on the six-sided object and align them to create solid walls of blue, green, orange, red, white and yellow. In the quest to accomplish that feat, where an astounding 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible configurations exist, there is but one correct solution.
The steps a school takes when it attempts to assemble a championship-caliber cross country program are not as scientific and certainly not as measurable. At Tennessee, though, it is apparent that progress has been made in that regard with the women's team, as it has utilized the academic and athletic assets of the university and the scenic beauty of the surrounding area to help attract a talented corps of runners to campus. With the merger of four gifted freshman harriers to the intact 2001 Southeastern Conference runner-up squad, and the addition of two-time SEC Cross Country Coach of the Year J.J. Clark to the equation, it appears the Lady Vols finally have the ability to align all of their orange resources and produce "The Right Combination."
"In the past, some of the athletes here have battled some injuries, and because of that the team has been unable to keep the lineup the same from week to week," Clark said. "These kids have also had three different coaches come and go the past few years, so it's kind of been mix and match in terms of the overall direction of the program.
"This year's team has a good blend of veterans and newcomers as well as a contrast of middle and long distance runners. Assuming we can avoid injuries and keep everyone healthy, all the pieces are in place here to start the climb to the next level."
Just when that collaboration of talent, coaching and resources will yield a Southeastern Conference title or boost UT into the NCAA's top tier of schools remains to be seen, but the 2002 arrangement appears on paper to be capable of moving in that direction and returning the program to its stature of the 1980s. That would be the era when the Lady Vols made the right moves to garner four top-15 national finishes. It was also a time when Knoxville hosted the 1982 World's Fair, and the Rubik's Cube was all the rage.
With the Volunteer City celebrating the 20th anniversary of when the world came to town, and the famous puzzle being an integral part of the East Tennessee Historical Society's exhibit regarding that event, it is only fitting that the Lady Vols are on the brink of recreating their program's own glory days. The league's coaches seem to sense that resurgence, too, as 10 of them selected the pack from Rocky Top to finish second in the league behind Arkansas, with two even giving Tennessee first-place nods over the Lady Razorbacks.
Such optimism for the future of the program no doubt reflects an overall respect for Clark's reputation. As the skipper of the cross country team at Florida for 10 seasons, he was the only league coach able to defeat Arkansas for the SEC title, having done so in 1996 and 1997 en route to conference coach of the year honors. UT's lofty preseason projection in 2002 also stems from the fact that 10 Lady Vol veterans return, including three All-SEC performers from a squad that ascended from eighth in the league in 2000 to second a year ago.
Leading the way for the Lady Vols is senior Sharon Dickie, a three-time All-SEC and NCAA All-South Region selection from Grand Blanc, Mich. In her fifth season due to a redshirt campaign in 1999, Dickie is hopeful of overcoming a history of nagging injuries. Despite those maladies, she qualified for her third NCAA Championships meet a year ago, finished third at the SEC meet and claimed sixth at regionals. Not only would a return to her 2000 All-America form be possible if she's healthy, but she would also be a catalyst for the team's postseason goals.
"Sharon is our leader," said Clark. "She's a senior who has been an All-American in this program and leads by example. We need her to be out there running. Her being healthy is a key component in how we'll do as a team this season."
Equally as instrumental to the Big Orange fortunes is sophomore Brooke Novak. The highly-touted Kaukauna, Wis., native won her very first collegiate race in 2001, taking top honors at the Mountaineer Open in Boone, N.C. She, too, was troubled by injuries during the year but managed to find her stride just in time to place 10th at the SEC Championships and contribute heavily to UT's surprising red ribbon outcome. The prep Track & Field News All-American, who broke Suzy Favor-Hamilton's 15-year-old 1600m state record in 2000, is anxious to step into the national spotlight in 2002.
"Brooke had a great summer," Clark said. "Since she's been at Tennessee, she has only shown flashes of what she can do. If healthy, she has the talent to be a big factor at the SEC and NCAA levels."
The third member of the SEC honor guard is junior Jessica Southers. The product of Ashland, Ky., barely missed all-conference accolades as a rookie in 2000 with her 17th-place result, so she picked up the pace as a sophomore and finished in 13th to earn a plaque. Her progress during the track and field campaign only served to improve the outlook for her third season on the course.
"Like Brooke, Jessica had a very productive June and July," Clark said. "She displayed great consistency last year from one week to the next, and with the hard work she has put in and the increased confidence she possesses, we look for her to be pivotal in terms of whether we go to nationals in 2002."
Also critical to the squad's prospects of earning a berth to the NCAA gathering and helping UT against conference foes will be a trio of athletes who took turns picking up the slack a season ago. Juniors Erin Anderson and Christy Baird and sophomore Elizabeth McCalley came up big when it counted on several occasions in 2001.
Baird and McCalley, both hailing from Knoxville, were Tennessee's fourth and fifth finishers on the SEC runner-up squad. Baird, who took 20th at the conference meet, came back even stronger at the NCAA South Regional, crossing the line second among Lady Vols and checking in 30th overall. Anderson capped her year in strong fashion, grabbing number three team honors at the regional, while McCalley scored in fourth position.
"Erin came on at the end of the year and kept it going on the track through the end of the outdoor season," Clark said. "Elizabeth was unbelievably consistent and showed great heart for a freshman, and Christy always seems to come through when it is time to run. She is ready to put the injuries behind her and have the best season yet."
While not scoring at the SEC or NCAA meets in 2001, senior Amber Ayub (Knoxville), junior Kameisha Bennett (Dayton, Ohio) and sophomore Nicole Cook (Petersburg, Va.) pushed their teammates. That troika should be up to that task again, but Clark is expecting a little more this time around, even from 800m standouts Bennett and Cook.
"Amber is a great team leader, and I expect her to continue to bolster our team through her competitive spirit," Clark said. "I look forward to watching Kameisha make more progress and see if she can make a contribution. Nicole has shown she can run cross country, and we want to continue to develop her range and see what she is capable of doing."
Somewhat of an unknown quantity to Clark is senior Rebecca Collins. The Loveland, Ohio, native missed all of 2001 with injuries, but she scored for Tennessee three times in 2000. Her best outing was a 20:02.93, 10th-place outcome at the UT Invitational. Her experience can do nothing but enhance a veteran-laden lineup.
Conversely, Clark expects the incoming quartet of runners to likewise provide a boost to the returning letterwinners. In fact, he has asked them not to sit back and wait their turn, but rather push their 10 older teammates.
"We have a very good freshman class," Clark said. "Though they will have adjustments to make as newcomers to collegiate running, I have encouraged them to be immediate contributors and to challenge the upperclassmen. Not only do they represent a great future for our program, they also have the intensity to make everyone sharper this season."
Clark is speaking of Megan Cauble of Knoxville, Felicia Guliford of Gallup, N.M., Katie Flaute of Dayton, Ohio, and Mindy Sullivan of Lubbock, Texas. In that foursome, UT welcomes a three-time Foot Locker Championships finalist in Guliford, a 2001 Foot Locker finalist and one of the nation's best 800m runners in Sullivan, a Midwest Foot Locker finalist in Flaute and a Tennessee AAA state champion in Cauble. Their help will be needed from the get-go if the Lady Vols are to develop into the kind of team Clark envisions.
A delayed start to the schedule, Clark offers, will be beneficial to everyone involved. Such a late debut allows a couple of extra weeks of training and a chance for the squad members and their new coach to bond. By the time the Sept. 13 Tennessee Invitational rolls around, the Lady Vols should be ready to unveil their new edition. Doing so on their home 5K course at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville, Tenn., will be an added bonus.
The following weekend, Tennessee will hit the road for a three-meet regular-season slate, beginning in Raleigh, N.C., for the 5K Wolfpack Invitational on Sept. 21. The first 6K race of the year is next on the agenda, as Clark leads his troops to University Park, Pa., for the PSU National Invitational on Oct. 12. Easing off the longer distances in preparation for the conference meet, the Lady Vols will head down I-75 to Chattanooga for the UTC Invitational, a 3K event on Oct. 19.
On Nov. 4, UT's newest head coach will take his squad back to his old stomping grounds in Gainesville, Fla., where the Lady Vols will attempt to win the school's first SEC title in cross country since the 1990 Big Orange bunch accomplished that feat in the land of the Gators.
"My expectation is that we always go after it and compete at a very high level," Clark said. "We want to make a run at Arkansas, a school that has led the SEC for quite some time, and we want to compete for the title they hold. They have a cushion on the rest of the conference and us, and it is my job to close that gap."
Clark also wants his squad ready to run well on Nov. 16, when the Lambert Acres course will be configured for a 6000-meter women's race for the very first time. On that date, Tennessee will play host to the NCAA South Regional at 10 a.m., hoping to earn a team berth to the NCAA Championships meet on Nov. 25 in Terre Haute, Ind.
"Along with our SEC expectations, we want to qualify for nationals as a team for the first time since 1998," Clark said. "We have the opportunity of making that happen at home in the regional meet. I want us to be good enough to get that done and earn a trip to Indiana. If we do that, we have a chance to break into the top 15, and that would be a move in the right direction for us.
"Lots of schools have talented individuals on their rosters, though," Clark continued. "The whole trick of coaching is developing those athletes, keeping them healthy and building a chemistry within the team. Like a Rubik's Cube, all the parts are there. You just have to twist and turn the blocks a specific way to find the right combination."