Sixth-year UT Head Coach J.J. Clark has had more than his share of successes through the years, including a 518-162-1 record, four NCAA South Region titles, three Southeastern Conference Championships and five NCAA Championship berths during his first five seasons at the University of Tennessee.
He also has experienced campaigns where things didn’t go as planned. Such was the case a year ago, when injuries to key personnel hampered the Lady Vols’ chances of extending their victory streaks at the regional and league meets.
To Clark, the path to excellence is not achieved overnight, and it doesn’t come without its ups and downs. It is a lifetime commitment to setting goals, working hard and trying to repeatedly make those aspirations become reality.
The 2007 Big Orange cross country team is mindful of that philosophy. As one cohesive unit, the group is dedicated to making Tennessee a perennial name in college distance running for years to come. As Lady Volunteers, they also know they have joined a family structure that will nurture them and help them develop into confident, productive women in today’s society and provide them a never-ending sisterhood. Realizing that both are legacies that last for a lifetime, they are committed to being “In It Together...For The Long Run.”
That path over the long haul means Clark and company must deal with setbacks along the way and start afresh each cross country season in pursuing the program’s lofty goals. Those standards include competing for SEC and NCAA South Region trophies and trying to break through at the NCAA Championships into the circle of the sport’s elite programs.
As the Big Orange skipper and his squad embark on the 2007 campaign, they must come to terms with some obstacles that must be overcome. First, the team must account for the loss of two seniors, Katie Flaute and Felicia Guliford, who contributed mightily to the magnificent run Tennessee enjoyed during Clark’s first five years at the helm. Flaute, a three-time all-region and all-conference selection, and Guliford, a three-time all-region and two-time All-SEC honoree, became only the second and third Lady Vols in program history to make four NCAA Championship appearances in their careers.
In addition to replacing that dynamic duo, Clark also must fill in the gaps left with the departure of 2006 freshmen Rose-Anne Galligan and Kelly Parrish. It must be noted, though, that neither contributed to the scoring cause at any of the three championship-caliber meets a year ago.
Even with those losses, Clark will not enter the new season with a bare cupboard. In fact, he goes in armed with five runners who have previously been decorated with postseason honors. The question is whether those talented harriers will impact the team’s fortunes in 2007 or in the years to come.
“The seniors we lost, Katie Flaute and Felicia Guliford, over the last few years have been very consistent and provided great leadership from that standpoint,” Clark said. “People like that are always hard to replace, but that’s why you recruit and continue to build.
“Rose-Anne and Kelly are not returning for us this year, but I am ecstatic about the lineup we do have back. I am excited about the future and what the year could bring. We’re just very positive about having four All-SEC and all-region caliber returnees and another all-region/all-conference runner who has joined us as a transfer to help in our run at the SEC and NCAA meets.”
Returning after she earned All-SEC accolades the past two seasons and added All-South Region acclaim to her impressive resume in 2007 is junior Sarah Bowman of Warrenton, Va. The third-year performer led Tennessee to the finish line in two of its last three races a year ago, taking seventh overall at the SEC Championships, after placing sixth in 2005, and winding up 97th at the NCAA Championship meet. With Flaute and Guliford gone, Bowman’s ascension into a team leader role will be a key to the squad’s fortunes.
After they made great strides toward the end of the season in 2006, junior Katie Van Horn (Glendora, N.J.) and sophomore Jackie Areson (Delray Beach, Fla.) will be counted on to join Bowman at the front of the pack. A first-year performer after transferring to UT from Richmond, Van Horn scored in six meets and earned all-region acclaim after leading the Lady Vols with an eighth-place finish at the South Regional meet. She also filled the number-two position for Team Orange at the NCAA Championships.
In all seven meets during her rookie season, Areson counted toward the scoring total and joined Van Horn on the All-South squad with a 10th-place finish. Like Van Horn, she barely missed garnering All-SEC kudos, as well, with a 15th-place league finish that was one spot ahead of her teammate.
The fourth returnee who possesses postseason accolades is junior Leah Soro. The Knoxville native earned All-SEC and All-South recognition as a freshman in 2005 before battling injuries in her sophomore campaign. Soro ran in only four meets a year ago, with a 21st-place outcome and number-five team placement at the SEC meet standing as her peak performance. For Tennessee to have a strong showing in 2007, it is critical for the Lady Vols to have Soro healthy and running at the level she displayed as a rookie.
Filling out the quartet of those with previous postseason honors is transfer Heidi Magill-Dahl (Orem, Utah), who joined the program this season from BYU. Magill-Dahl brings impressive credentials to Rocky Top, having twice earned All-Mountain Region and All-Mountain West Conference honors with the Cougars. She redshirted in 2006, but if she can match the form she flashed in 2005, when she won the MWC title, placed fourth at the regional meet and finished 39th at the NCAA Championships, Tennessee will have found a runner who could significantly impact the course of this season.
The prospects for the 2007 campaign also will be affected by how many others can move into a position to contribute. Clark will look for someone to emerge from a quartet of returnees, which includes juniors Rolanda Bell (Laurelton, N.Y.) and Kimarra McDonald (Lumberton, N.J.) and sophomores Phoebe Wright (Signal Mountain, Tenn.) and Alyssa Bryant (Andersonville, Tenn.).
Bell returns with the most experience, having run in five races a year ago and served as the team’s alternate at the NCAA South Regional and NCAA Championships. She never has cracked the scoring five in her two previous seasons at UT, but her improvement during the outdoor track & field season last spring indicates she might be on the path to doing so.
Wright appears also to be on the right track toward eventually becoming a contributor in cross country. She, too, ran in five races in 2007 without breaking the top five. Like Bell, her development during the course of the track season provided signs that she might improve to the point of becoming a point-getter.
McDonald and Bryant thus far have not been able to assist the team’s scoring cause in cross country, but Clark expects both to move in that direction. McDonald saw action in the first two meets a year ago and ran in five races as a freshman, including the SEC Championship meet. Bryant, meanwhile, did not compete in her first season at UT and will be eyeing her first action ever on the cross country course.
Closing out the roster of 10 is the team’s lone freshman, Brittany Sheffey. The Bellport, N.Y., product competed in track & field and cross country on the varsity level since seventh grade. Her list of accolades on the trails includes earning all-state honors three times and claiming Suffolk County Outstanding Athlete in 2004 and 2005.
Sheffey is a middle distance runner on the oval, but she has demonstrated the ability to successfully handle the longer distances off the track as well. For team depth on a squad small in numbers, it would prove very beneficial for UT if the rookie made a seamless transition and wound up competing for a scoring position in her rookie campaign.
Sheffey and her teammates will get a chance to get their feet wet with a short race in week one. 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 ideal race for his squad as it continues its early-season training regimen.
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 University Park, Pa., for Team Orange during the Clark era, with the squad 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 its belt, 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 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 the 2006 edition at Lambert Acres.
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.”
At the outset, though, Clark and his troops will try to develop depth and fill in the blanks left by the departure of four runners. Despite a roster of only 10 and the fact the team is now in the role of the pursued rather than the pursuer in the SEC and NCAA South Ranks, the overall plan is still the same.
“I am approaching this season like I normally would, carefully training the athletes and using the knowledge I’ve been given to make the athletes believe in themselves and the team peak at the right time. You don’t necessarily have to be 10-12 deep to be good. I’ve seen teams win it with five or six athletes.
“Good teams find a way to win, and that’s what we have to do. If something happens to someone, we have to find a way to get the job done. That’s what we are all about.”
And that’s why Clark’s Lady Vols are committed to being “In It Together...For The Long Run.”