Nov. 12, 2005
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Junior Felicia Guliford, one of four Lady Vols to produce all-region performances, led the charge with a fifth-place individual finish as No. 15 Tennessee collected its fourth consecutive NCAA South Regional cross country championship Saturday morning at the University of Florida Golf Course.
As one of the top two team finishers, UT automatically advances to the NCAA Championships for the fourth straight season and for the ninth time in program history. This year's national meet will be held Nov. 21 at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Ind.
"It's good to win," Clark said. "One of our youngsters did not have a great race, but Carly Matthews really stepped it up. My hat is off to her.
"The rest of the group was solid as a rock. I am just happy to be able to get to the NCAA meet, and hopefully we'll get into a good rhythm there."
Tennessee, which improved its record in South Region meets under Head Coach J.J. Clark's watch to 84-0 over the past four years, tallied 76 points to easily defeat runner-up Georgia (98) and improve its season mark to a stellar 122-5. That win total marks the third year in a row UT has charted a record number of victories, including tallies of 121 in 2004 and 99 in 2003. Florida State (118), UAB (162), Florida (178), Chattanooga (198), Samford (199), Vanderbilt (210), Ga. Tech (250) and Mississippi State (279) rounded out the top 10 squads on a warm, sunny day that featured temperatures in the 70s.
"It was a little warmer weather than we are used to running in this time of the year," Clark said. "It's Florida. I believe we should have had the meet a little earlier in the day, but we survived and it was a good meet.
"All we were trying to do was get to the NCAA meet. It's good to win four years in a row, and it's something that is very positive for our program."
After earning all-region accolades in 2002 and 2004 with 14-place finishes at the South gathering, Guliford's top-five outing at this year's meet set the tone for Team Orange. Her clocking of 20:43.47 was 53 seconds behind winner Shannon Wommack of Chattanooga (19:50.16), but it was good enough to give the Lady Vol the fifth-best result ever recorded on the course.
Wommack, the 2004 regional runner-up, outpaced last year's victor, Angela Homan of Auburn, who was second this time around in 20:14.83. Lauren Blankenship of Samford was third at 20:16.39, while Miami's Melanie Schultz was fourth at 20:32.41.
"I wasn't worried about how she (Guliford) ran the last time she was here (30th/did not score for team at 2002 SECs); I was worried about last weekend, when she had a spasm in her back and couldn't run on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That was more of a concern for me. I am just very happy and feel fortunate that she was able to contribute today, even though I think she is capable of winning the race."
Tennessee also got scoring help from freshman Leah Soro (Knoxville, Tenn.), junior Katie Flaute (Dayton, Ohio), and senior Carly Matthews (Winston-Salem, N.C.), all of whom finished among the top 25 and made the all-region team. UT's fifth counting runner was freshman Sarah Bowman (Warrenton, Va.), who didn't have her best day but still gave the Lady Vols enough to secure the victory over the Bulldogs, who grabbed runner-up kudos for the second year in a row.
A product of West High School, Soro came through with a huge effort, especially in light of UT's number two runner (Bowman) falling off the pace. The rookie rolled to a ninth-place finish out of a field of 171 to collect all-region acclaim via a gutsy 21:01.54 readout. It marked the third time this season Soro had filled the two slot, having done so at the Belmont Opener and Paul Short Run.
"Leah was a big, big factor today," Clark said. "She definitely dug in and has been a big contributor to our program. I am very happy to see her perform at this level."
After finishing 21st in 2004 and 26th in 2003, Flaute also produced the best region result of her career. She made the All-South squad for the second year in a row by virtue of a 12th-place finish. Her time of 21:13.78 was 35 seconds faster than what she charted a season ago at this meet.
Matthews made her final region meet one to remember by easily enjoying her finest day as a Lady Vol. The former Georgia Tech transfer covered the rolling 6K layout in 21:30.55 to snag a 15th-place result. She had reported in with 32nd- and 35th-place efforts the past two seasons as UT's sixth runner, and today's output earned her the first individual recognition of her UT career.
Bowman, who was Tennessee's second finisher and sixth overall at the Southeastern Conference meet two weekends ago, appeared to struggle during the middle portion of the race and carded a 35th-place showing in a time of 22:12.22. The rookie finished strong down the home stretch, picking off several runners in the process. Also running for the Lady Vols but not scoring were freshman Rolanda Bell (Laurelton, N.Y.), who was 56th in 22:41.08, and senior Mindy Sullivan (Lubbock, Texas), who was 70th in 22:54.77.
"It was just a bad race," Clark said of Bowman's uncharacteristic outing. "I don't even know what happened. We have to get her to be confident throughout the entire race. Hopefully she'll come back at the NCAA meet and show how good she really is."
The regional crown was Clark's six as a head coach. In addition to winning the past four at Tennessee, he collected region crowns in 1997 and 1998 during a 10-year stint as cross country coach at Florida (1992-2001). Clark, the all-time winningest cross country coach in Lady Vol annals, surpassed the 400-victory plateau in the triumph. He now stands at 401-95-1 in his fourth season at Rocky Top.