June 30, 2005

Lady Vol Head Coach J.J. Clark aimed high, setting some lofty goals when he took over the University of Tennessee women's cross country program three years ago. After guiding his 2004 squad to its second-straight Southeastern Conference title, its third-consecutive NCAA South Region crown and back-to-back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Championship meet, it is clear Clark has the Lady Volunteers "Right On Target" toward becoming one of the nation's dominant distance powers.

Armed with a No. 22 ranking to open the campaign, the Big Orange women began their 2004 quest for "big-game" trophies at the 13-team Mel Brodt Invitational in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Sept. 11. Clark's charges wasted little time in confirming themselves as a high-caliber program, placing four runners among the top seven and easily winning the team title with 26 points. After redshirting in 2003, sophomore Felicia Guliford returned to action in very impressive fashion, finishing as the top collegiate performer on the 5K course in a career-best 17:32 behind only former Florida All-American Becki Wells.

Junior Megan Cauble followed Guliford across the line in a personal-record clocking of 17:45 to take third, while sophomore Mindy Sullivan and senior Elizabeth McCalley were the Lady Vols' third and fourth finishers in times of 18:00 and 18:09 to take sixth and seventh, respectively. Junior Carly Matthews closed out the Big Orange scoring five, taking 13th in 18:28.

Two weeks later, against a larger field and four other ranked schools, No. 19 Tennessee unloaded its arsenal on Sept. 25 at the 35-team Paul Short Run in Bethlehem, Pa. Tallying 53 points by packing all five runners into the top 16, the Lady Vols out-gunned No. 10 Villanova, No. 13 Columbia, No. 15 Georgetown and No. 27 Yale, among others, on the 6K layout en route to their second straight triumph.

Senior Brooke Novak made her 2004 debut in impressive fashion, knocking out a PR of 20:43.13 to grab third-place honors and lead the orange-clads to the tape. Cauble was the next UT performer to hit the finish chute, taking ninth in 21:10.06, while Guliford was 10th in 21:15.16. Sophomore Katie Flaute opened the year with a career-topping 21:24.86 to wind up 15th, and McCalley rounded out the scoring in 16th at 21:26.38.

With a great deal of momentum, the Big Orange hit the trail a week later, on Oct. 1, in its only home appearance in 2004 at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville. Then holding down the 10th position in the national rankings, the Lady Vols had a big target on their backs as they hosted the 5K Tennessee Invitational. With UT's Guliford and McCalley sitting this race out as part of their training cycles, sister school University of Tennessee at Chattanooga nearly hit the bull's eye, finishing second (29) to the home team's tally of 26 by a mere three points. Alabama A&M was a distant third with 83.

After finishing in the number three slot individually at the meet in 2002 and coming in second in 2003, Novak finally broke through for a personal victory in 2004, staving off a challenge by Chattanooga's Shannon Wommack and covering the hilly Blount County course in a personal-record 17:16.96. The mark ranked as the fifth-fastest 5K clocking recorded on the course and the best in history by a Lady Vol, replacing Novak's 2003 standard of 17:39.20.

The UT senior got crucial assistance from Cauble, who edged the Lady Mocs' Kathleen Turchin for fourth place in 18:13.53. The trio of Flaute, Matthews and Sullivan, meanwhile, smothered the chances of an upset when they finished in sixth through eighth places ahead of Chattanooga's fourth and fifth scoring runners. The Lady Vol troika's offerings were 18:19.15, 18:34.14 and 18:42.08, respectively, with Flaute's being a PR by 30 seconds.

The next expedition on the schedule signaled a shift in gears from preparation to execution. The Indiana State University Pre-Nationals meet in Terre Haute on Oct. 16 featured two 30+ team races, with squads equally divided up into "Blue" and "White" divisions. The event offered an opportunity to both preview the 6K course that would host the NCAA Championship meet later in the season as well as assess where Tennessee stacked up against the best teams in the country.

Running in the "White Race," No. 9 Tennessee checked in sixth out of the 36-team field, beating three ranked programs but also finishing behind five others. The result was not quite what Clark had envisioned, but with three races remaining in the season, it offered a glimpse into the work that his squad still needed to do to perform well when championship trophies were at stake.

Pacing the Lady Vols on that October morning in Indiana was Guliford, who uncorked her top 6K readout ever with a 12th-place clocking of 20:55.3. Beyond that, the times were not up to Clark's standards, with Novak (23rd, 21:11.6), Flaute (51st, 21:36.3), McCalley (63rd, 21:46.9) and Cauble (72nd, 21:51.3) rounding out the scoring quintet. Sullivan (127th, 22:25.0) and Matthews (137th, 22:32.0), meanwhile, failed to break the top 100.

With that meet in the rearview mirror, UT's first opportunity to snare a trophy came on Oct. 30 in Fayetteville, Ark., as the Southeastern Conference Championships were contested on the home turf of the league's most dominant women's cross country program during the past 15 years. For No. 14 Tennessee to seize its second straight SEC title, it would have to do so against the home-standing Arkansas Lady Razorbacks as well as the up-and-coming Georgia Lady Bulldogs.

The Lady Vols' chances to win back-to-back conference crowns for the first time in school history suffered a damaging blow midway through the 6K race, when three-time All-SEC performer Brooke Novak began experiencing breathing difficulties and started to fade from the lead pack into the middle of the 97-runner field. Things did not look good for the team in orange.

In a character-revealing moment for Clark's club, however, Novak's teammates found ways to pick up the slack and help their squad overcome a potentially costly turn of events. First, there was Guliford, doing her job and leading Team Orange to the tape with a fourth-place time of 21:06.23. Next came McCalley, delivering her pinnacle collegiate performance the way special seniors seem to do, with a career-apex placing of eighth and a PR 21:11.03 readout to boot.

The parade of bests continued with Flaute, who gutted out a 10th-place reading of 21:17.62 in her finest SEC hour. Matthews nearly gave Tennessee its fourth All-SEC finisher of the morning, ending her run 15th in 21:27.19 to just miss her initial all-league honor. Cauble, who struggled only two weeks before at the ISU Pre-Nationals Meet, came through as UT's fifth point-producer, taking 18th in 21:40.57 and making sure to finish ahead of Arkansas's fifth scoring runner, Jessie Gordon. Novak, as it turned out, would fall to a disappointing 38th in 22:31.30, yet she amazingly crossed the line ahead of over half the field despite her respiratory ailment.

With that unfortunate episode, the Tennessee contingent was left wondering, while the team scores were being tallied up, whether the conference hardware had slipped from its grasp and into the hands of Arkansas or perhaps Georgia. An unofficial count, and later an official announcement, provided the Big Orange with a huge measure of relief, as UT had escaped by a two-point margin over the hosts, 55 to 57, while Georgia settled for third with 63.

The strains of Rocky Top, especially in the land of the Hog call, never sounded sweeter, as Tennessee hoisted the trophy skyward for the second consecutive season. Clark, too, would be named SEC Coach of the Year for the second time in as many years, while Guliford, McCalley, Flaute and Matthews garnered all-conference acclaim by virtue of their exemplary efforts.

The celebration was short-lived, however, as the NCAA South Regional was just two weeks away, and UT was gunning for a three-peat. The 15th-ranked Big Orange headed to Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 13, knowing they would face Chattanooga and Georgia squads that nearly defeated them earlier in the season as well as a Florida State squad that gave the Lady Vols strong challenges at the past two region gatherings.

It would take a special effort to leave the Heart of Dixie victorious, and that's just the kind of performance the Orange & White provided. For the first time in school history, all five UT scorers garnered all-region acclaim, and those showings enabled the squad from Rocky Top to emerge from the 6K trail with a 78-80 win over UGA in a team race where no one else threatened. Novak was the Lady Vol leader, taking seventh in 21:15.04, and she was joined on the All-South Region team by McCalley (11th, 21:28.71), Guliford (14th, 21:34.62), Flaute (21st, 21:48.87) and Cauble (25th, 21:57.80). Clark, for the third time in as many campaigns, was named South Region Coach of the Year.

That performance earned Tennessee its third straight NCAA Championships appearance, and once again, the Lady Vols charted an improvement over the previous season. A 21st-place outing in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 22, though better than the result in 2003, was not what Clark had in mind for his No. 14 entry. Considering Guliford, at 81st-place, was the team's top finisher, Novak was its fifth scorer and Cauble was unable to complete the race, things could have been much worse for the Big Orange.

As it was, Tennessee closed the winningest season in school history with an overall record of 121-25, including 20-1 against SEC foes. That slate bested the 2003 victory total of 99 and gave Clark a three-year record of 279-90-1 at UT. The skipper now ranks second in Lady Vol cross country history behind only 10-year coach and department hall-of-famer Terry Crawford (303-76-1).

Clark's crew also represented itself well in the classroom once again, as Guliford picked up Women's Intercollegiate Cross Country Coaches Association Academic All-America distinction and was a second-team selection to Flaute's first-team nod on the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District IV squad. Additionally, Cauble, Nicole Cook, Flaute, Guliford, Matthews and Rachel Zamata earned SEC Academic Honor Roll esteem.

"The season didn't end the way we expected, but there are no excuses and no regrets," Clark said. "This team had a great year. They were very consistent and very tough and always seemed to find a way to win. Remember, this team won the SEC title without Brooke Novak scoring.

"I am very proud of the way these youngsters conducted themselves as student-athletes, and winning the SEC and regional championships and being ranked in the top 10 during the season provided us some very positive moments. This was probably the best cross country team I've ever coached."





  • Loading Tweets...
    1 second ago