Oct. 30, 2004
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Sophomore Felicia Guliford came through with a crucial fourth-place individual performance, and a veteran University of Tennessee women's cross country squad exhibited great poise and impressive depth in overcoming adversity Saturday morning at the University of Arkansas Agri Park course. The payoff for not panicking was a thrilling two-point victory over the host Lady Razorbacks and the Lady Vols' second-straight Southeastern Conference Championship.
Fourteenth-ranked and conference preseason favorite Tennessee, with 2003 All-SEC honorees senior Brooke Novak and junior Mindy Sullivan not counting in the scoring total, closed ranks and tallied 55 points to narrowly defeat 10-time league champ and 20th-ranked Arkansas (57). In the process, UT claimed the program's fourth SEC trophy to go along with hardware earned in 1983, 1990 and 2003. No. 17 Georgia wasn't far behind with a score of 63 in a race that was predicted to be between three teams and ended up being just that. Florida was a distant fourth with 160 points, followed by Auburn (168), Vanderbilt (177), Mississippi State (186), Kentucky (193), LSU (205), Alabama (257), South Carolina (265) and Ole Miss (334).
"Our team really stepped up today," UT Head Coach J.J. Clark said. "Everyone did a great job of handling an environment where there were a lot of Arkansas fans and enabling us to win another SEC championship. To come here and win back-to-back conference titles for the first time in school history is another huge step for our program.
"Because of how she's been running this season, I expected Felicia to be in the position she was today. She is really coming into her own and running very consistently for us. She is a big talent who is only going to get better."
Guliford, a product of Gallup, N.M., who redshirted last season, led the Big Orange pack for the third time in four races during the 2004 campaign and claimed her first All-SEC accolades. She did so with a fourth-place result of 21:06.23 on a sunny day where early-morning temperatures were in the low to mid 50s and the footing was a little soggy from rain the night before. Angela Homan of Auburn, meanwhile, won her second-consecutive individual league crown, crossing the line in 20:25.92.
"It is an awesome feeling to see how we came together as a team to win today," Guliford said. "It took every single one of us to make that happen. I am also happy with how I ran. I thought I did well, but there is definitely more left in me."
As for the Tennessee supporting cast, senior Elizabeth McCalley (Knoxville, Tenn.), sophomore Katie Flaute (Dayton, Ohio), junior Carly Matthews (Winston-Salem, N.C.) and junior Megan Cauble (Knoxville, Tenn.) picked up the Lady Vol banner and carried it after Novak began to falter between the first and second miles of the 6,000-meter race. One of the team's usual heroines, Novak was in the lead group with Guliford and others through the first mile but soon after began experiencing asthma-related breathing difficulties that eventually prevented the senior from Kaukauna, Wis., from scoring or achieving All-SEC status for a Lady Vol-record fourth time. To her credit, though, she finished ahead of 59 other runners despite the unfortunate episode.
Coming to the aid, though, were McCalley and Flaute, who joined Guliford on the All-SEC squad with career-best conference finishes of eighth and 10th, respectively, in times of 21:11.03 and 21:17.62. Producing an SEC career-best 15th-place effort and winding up one spot short of all-league acclaim was Matthews, who covered the distance in 21:27.19 to flesh out her best 6K performance since midway through the 2003 season. While Matthews left the course without receiving a personal award, her gritty display no doubt made a valuable difference in Tennessee's team fortunes.
Cauble, meanwhile, closed out the scoring with a finish of 18th in 21:40.57. Her contribution proved to be equally as important, as her push to the finish put her ahead of the fifth Arkansas runner and gave UT a two-point triumph that ranks as the tightest margin of victory in the 22-year history of SEC women's cross country.
"Honestly, I never imagined we would win this meet without Brooke Novak counting in our scoring total," Clark said. "She had some respiratory troubles, and luckily we had the team to back it up. Carly, Elizabeth and Katie stepped up and were simply outstanding. Megan Cauble also came through and was very steady today."
Rounding out the competitors for Clark, who won his second SEC title at the helm of the Orange and White to go along with 1996 and 1997 conference triumphs at Florida, were Sullivan (Lubbock, Texas), who was 28th in 22:14.15; Novak, who was 38th in 22:31.30; and senior Nicole Cook (Petersburg, Va.), who crossed the line 49th of 97 runners in 22:52.01. Clark is the only SEC Coach other than Lance Harter of Arkansas to win league trophies since the Lady'Backs joined the conference in 1991.
"We have made tremendous progress, and this shows Tennessee is becoming a good distance powerhouse," Clark said. "We lost Lindsay Hyatt from last year's championship team, and we came back stronger this season. That is a great sign for our program."
Tennessee, now sporting a sterling 89-5 record on the season, will head home this evening and begin preparations for the NCAA South Regional Championships, which will be held in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at 10 a.m. Central time on Nov. 13. The Lady Vols will be attempting to win their third-straight South Region trophy and advance to their third NCAA Championships meet in as many seasons.