KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Year six of the J.J. Clark era of University of Tennessee women's cross country begins Aug. 31, and the Big Orange skipper has assembled a schedule designed to prepare his Lady Volunteers for a sixth-straight trip to the NCAA Championship meet.
During his first five seasons at the helm, Clark’s formula has resulted in the program achieving a 518-162-1 (.761) won-lost record along with winning four straight NCAA South Regional titles (2002-05) and three consecutive Southeastern Conference Championships (2003-05). Those victory strings were interrupted a year ago, but the preparation along the season’s journey paved the way for a program-best fifth-straight appearance at the NCAA Championships. By following a similar plan in 2007, Clark hopes to extend the team’s run of trips to the national meet.
As they did in 2006, this year’s Lady Volunteers will pop the cork on the 2007 campaign in Nashville at the Belmont Opener. Tennessee is coming off a second-place finish a year ago at the meet, which will be held this time at 5:30 p.m. Central Time on Aug. 31 at Percy Warner Park. Clark favors the 4,000-meter distance as an excellent race for his squad to get its feet wet.
The Big Orange women step up to a 5,000-meter jaunt in week two, as the Lady Vols and Vols play host to the Tennessee Invitational at 5:45 p.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 14 at picturesque Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville. The UT women have claimed victory six times at the meet, including the past three seasons.
Two weeks later, Clark takes his squad to Bethlehem, Pa., on Sept. 28 at 2:45 p.m. ET for the Paul Short Run, where the Lady Vols will run 6,000 meters on Lehigh University’s challenging Goodman Campus Course against a bevy of squads from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. The club from Rocky Top was third out of 35 teams in 2006, and this meet will once again be the first 6K race of the year as the team gears itself toward running that distance the rest of the way.
The final regular-season race presents itself on Oct. 12, as the Lady Vols run in the Penn State National Invitational at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time. It will mark the fourth trek to State College, Pa., for Team Orange during the Clark era, with the team finishing third of 34 schools during its last trip in 2005.
“Our schedule has the same theme, gradually getting tougher as the season goes on,” Clark said. “We start out with a fun run, a two-miler, at Belmont just to get the ball rolling. Then we have our home meet at Lambert Acres, which is a very challenging course and something we enjoy doing.
“Then we go to the Paul Short Run, which is one of my favorite meets and is on the same course where they’ve held the NCAA meet before. We’re also going to Penn State this year instead of the Pre-NCAA Meet, because we like to alternate between those two. Most of our athletes have been to the NCAA course in Terre Haute, Ind., before, and I feel like we can get a little more accomplished by running in Happy Valley this time.”
With the four preparatory meets under their belts, UT begins the championship portion of the slate in Lexington, Ky., by competing in the SEC Championship meet at 11 a.m. ET on Oct. 27. Tennessee will be looking for its seventh consecutive top-three finish at the meet and aiming to return to the victor’s seat, which the orange-clads occupied from 2003 to 2005 under Clark’s watch. UT also won league crowns in 1983 and 1990 as well.
After hosting the NCAA South Regional a year ago and finishing third, Tennessee will have to travel to Gainesville, Fla., this time around to try and earn a ticket to the national championship meet. The Lady Vols will toe the line at 11 a.m. ET on Nov. 10 at the University of Florida Golf Course, searching for NCAA berth number six during Clark’s tenure. UT won the meet in Gainesville two years ago and was third at last year’s edition at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville.
If the Big Orange can earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Championship meet by winning the region or do so by garnering an at-large invitation, Clark and company will head to Terre Haute once again. The 1:15 p.m. ET race on Nov. 19 would offer Tennessee another opportunity to break into the nation’s distance elite. A 21st-place finish in 2004 is the best outcome the Lady Vols can claim in their five previous trips under their current mentor.
“We have to bring our best to the SEC Championship and NCAA South Regional,” Clark said. “We’ll have to compete with our “A” game if we want to make it back to the NCAA meet. Overall, I think it is a solid schedule, and we look forward to seeing how things go as the season progresses.”