Aug. 26, 2008
Consistency. Persistency. Intensity. These are not just buzz words to seventh-year University of Tennessee Cross Country Head Coach J.J. Clark. They are proven, connectable keys in striving to be the best -- athletically, academically and in life.
When analyzing his Lady Vol program, one cannot argue with Clark about the reliability of those principles. His teams have won four NCAA South Region titles and three Southeastern Conference crowns in the past six years. They've also competed in five NCAA Championship meets. The raw numbers prove the Big Orange will be in the hunt, fighting tooth and nail each and every meet to be the first to reach the finish line.
Evidence of Clark's methods also extends beyond the competitive realm. His athletes have been nationally recognized for academic achievement. They've given back to the community. They've graduated. Then, they have taken the leadership and character traits they learned during their UT stay into the world as productive members of society.
It all adds up to Tennessee being a place that has strong leadership, a national-caliber program, outstanding academics, great expectations, a sense of responsibility, unwavering commitment, and a treasure trove of resources. Do those components insure that the Lady Vols will be a perennial player in the world of cross country? As long as Clark is at the helm in Big Orange Country, you can "Count On Us."
"You can count on the University of Tennessee putting student-athletes out on the competition field who will give their best," Clark said. "You can bank on these young ladies giving a great effort in the classroom and graduating. You can count on Tennessee competing for conference and regional titles and chasing national berths.
"Those things reflect the reputation that we have developed and the consistency we have shown. It's not that we're trying to be brash or bold and make predictions. Our theme is based on what has happened and projecting that we would like to continue moving forward in a positive and productive way."
Since Clark's addition to the department in June of 2002, UT has been nothing but productive. UT reeled off SEC titles from 2003 to 2005 and region crowns from 2002-05. What's more, the Big Orange women made five straight trips to the NCAA meet from 2002 to 2006. Even when it wasn't bringing home trophies, though, Tennessee was certainly within striking distance of getting the job done.
That was the case in 2007, when the Lady Vols handled an array of misfortunes with tremendous aplomb. Despite a handful of challenges that left his roster extremely thin, Clark's team surprised many with a runner-up finish at the SEC meet, placed fourth at the South Regional and just missed extending the program's string of NCAA appearances to six in a row.
"I always say the road to the top is never easy," Clark said. "We had a kind of `rough side of the mountain' experience last year, losing Jackie (Areson) to injury, having Rolanda (Bell) disqualified at the regional meet in bizarre fashion and not having Heidi (Magill-Dahl) for more than 60 percent of the season. We persevered and ended up taking second at the SEC Championships and fourth at the regional meet.
"We stuck together, tried to be the best we could possibly be and really had a growing experience for our entire team. I believe that will help us get through whatever obstacles are in our way this year and aid in our goal to become a championship-caliber team."
Tennessee will head into 2008 with eight returning letterwinners, including four who have previously earned either All-SEC or All-South Region accolades. The sole loss from a year ago was all-league and all-region performer Magill-Dahl, who appeared in only two meets after transferring from BYU.
Returning to lead the charge once again in 2008, though, will be the squad's top two returnees in seniors Sarah Bowman (Warrenton, Va.) and Katie Van Horn (Glendora, N.J.). Bowman has earned All-SEC acclaim three times and All-South kudos the past two seasons, while Van Horn reaped all-region accolades the past two years and all-league acclaim for the first time in 2007.
Bowman is coming off a season where she stepped to the forefront and took a leadership role for the Big Orange. She paced UT in five of six races, winning the Belmont Opener for the second time in three years, and posted career-best finishes at the conference (fourth) and regional (14th) meets.
"This is probably the team with the most experience and leadership that I've ever had," Clark said. "You have Sarah, who is a senior, now running very, very well in cross country. She is definitely able to show and guide a team in how I like things to be done."
Van Horn, meanwhile, also matured into a team leader, heading the pack for the second straight year at the regional meet and filling the No. 2 role on the team behind Bowman on nearly every other occasion. Her work and gritty competitive attitude netted her finishes of seventh at the SEC meet and 11th at the South Regional.
"Katie also is a good leader and runs very consistently," Clark said. "You put those two together, and it makes this team very special. I'm excited about having Sarah and Katie at the helm together, guiding us through a season."
Being counted on to provide close support to Bowman and Van Horn are junior Jackie Areson (Delray Beach, Fla.) and senior Rolanda Bell (Laurelton, N.Y.). Clark hopes Areson can return to her 2006 All-South Region form, and he expects that Bell will be poised to step into the limelight in her final season in orange.
Areson has run 11 races for the Lady Vols, and she has been in the squad's top five in each of those races. She had four starts for Clark in 2007, contributing a key fifth-place team scoring role that enabled UT to snare second place at SECs. She did not compete in another cross country or indoor track meet the rest of the campaign, and her return to health would be a huge boon to Tennessee's plans this season.
In her junior season, Bell developed into a contributing runner for the initial time in her collegiate career, scoring three times for Team Orange. She was on her way to being a counter at the South Regional before a bump during convergence at the finish line surprisingly earned her a disqualification from the meet. Based upon her growth last fall and her progression into a scoring runner in the mile and 1500m on the track last spring, all indications are that Bell will rise to the occasion in her final season in Knoxville.
"You can't forget about Jackie Areson, now that she's a junior," Clark said. "Her leadership also is known and respected, as is Rolanda's. It's a nice experienced group. I'm really going to need that, because we have some young kids behind them.
Rounding out the returnees are three more who have been in Tennessee's top five and a pair who have yet to break into the regular rotation.
Senior Leah Soro (Knoxville, Tenn.) was an All-SEC and All-South runner as a freshman in 2005, but she hasn't run for UT since 2006 due to injuries. Sophomore Brittany Sheffey (Bellport, N.Y.) returns after scoring in all six races a year ago, holding down the three and four spots for Clark. Also back is junior Phoebe Wright (Signal Mountain, Tenn.), a three-time scorer a year ago in the five slot.
"We know what Leah Soro has done in the past," Clark said. "Her injuries have limited her the past couple of years from achieving what she is capable of doing. We believe we have that under control now and look forward to her getting back in the fold and having fun.
"Brittany was really learning the ropes in cross country last season and hadn't really run a full season in quite some time. She surprised herself in how well she ran as a freshman and by scoring in every meet. I look forward to seeing her grow in cross country as the years go by.
"Phoebe definitely has the talent, and I believe she can do well in cross country. It's just a matter of whether she wants do it or not and making a commitment to run at this level. I believe she can do it and will train to do it. It will be exciting to see what she can do and how far she'll get."
Senior Kimarra McDonald (Lumberton, N.J.) and junior Alyssa Bryant (Andersonville, Tenn.) round out the returnees. McDonald has eight races under her belt, including one last year, while Bryant has yet to compete for the Big Orange.
"Kimarra and Alyssa are very similar," Clark said. "If they can stay healthy, those two will do their best to contribute. They have to run diligently to break into a spot that would travel, but they have the ability to do it."
New to the team in 2008 will be 11 student-athletes, giving Clark the largest cross country roster in school history. The Lady Vol skipper points to a trio of products from the Volunteer State, touting rookies Elizabeth Altizer (Bartlett), Ally Colvin (Maryville) and Kelsey Kane (Knoxville), as the three likely to make the quickest contributions.
Altizer and Kane each earned all-state honors three times during their prep careers in cross country for their respective classifications. Kane, too, is the daughter of former Lady Vol coach and runner, Missy (Alston) Kane Bemiller, so she has some knowledge of the expectations of collegiate running.
Also new on the scene are junior Jená Murphy (Memphis, Tenn.), sophomores Tyler Barnes (Ewing, N.J.) and Kim White (Memphis, Tenn.), and freshmen Ramzee Fondren (Detroit, Mich.), Charity Honeycutt (Burnsville, N.C.), Chelsea Knotts (Ripley, W.Va.), Chanelle Price (Easton, Pa.) and Elizabeth Tiller (Tuscaloosa, Ala.).
"In the state of Tennessee, Kelsey and Elizabeth were very highly ranked in cross country," Clark said. "They both stood out and grabbed my attention at the state meet. I believe they'll be able to step up and contribute right away, as should Ally, who had a really big PR in the mile last season.
"The rest of the group will have an impact as time goes along. I'm just not sure whether it will be this year or next. If it's not this season in cross country, at the least they'll get themselves strong for the track & field campaign and be ready to help."
For those who are ready to step into the fray, the 2008 slate gets underway on Sept. 5, as UT travels to Nashville and the 4K Belmont Opener for the fourth straight season. Bowman will be attempting to match personal victories in 2005 and 2007.
The Lady Vols play host to the first of two events this season at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville on Sept. 19. The UT women will run a 5K race, seeking to prevail at their home meet for the sixth time, and Bowman will try to win the race as a senior after doing so in 2005.
After making the trek to a pair of 6K meets in the Brooks Paul Short Run and the Penn State National Invitational on Oct. 3 and Oct. 17, respectively, the Big Orange will turn its focus toward the SEC Championships. The meet will be held on a Monday this season, taking place Nov. 3 in Starkville, Miss. UT, which was the runner-up a year ago, has won five league titles in its history, and Clark's club has never finished lower than third since taking over at Rocky Top.
On Nov. 15, the action returns to Lambert Acres, where UT will showcase the NCAA South Regional for the third time in seven seasons. The Lady Vols will be seeking their fifth title and sixth NCAA Championship appearance under Clark's tutelage. If they make the national field, they will travel to Terre Haute, Ind., to take part in that race on Nov. 24.
"Coming into this fall, only one person has left the group from a year ago," Clark said. "Everyone else is back, and we're adding 11 others to the group.
"We have the maturity now of Sarah, Katie and Jackie; Sheffey was a staple for us last year, and Rolanda has shown she can answer the bell. We have some others who are going to help round out our team as well. I'm very excited about the coming season and what could possibly happen."