Aug. 30, 2005
There's nothing virtual about it. Since J.J. Clark became the head coach of the University of Tennessee women's cross country program in 2002, the Lady Volunteers have enjoyed an unprecedented level of success. The fourth-year mentor has quickly transformed the Big Orange from a team that dreamed big, set goals and worked diligently toward high achievement to one where "Winning Is...Reality."
The numbers and list of accomplishments clearly back that up. The Orange and White harriers have accumulated a sterling 279-90-1 record during Clark's first three seasons at the helm, winning three straight NCAA South Region trophies, claiming back-to-back Southeastern Conference Championships and earning a school-best spree of three consecutive appearances at the NCAA Championships.
Those achievements confirm that Tennessee has been able to take on a nemesis such as Arkansas and come away victorious on multiple occasions. In fact, four-time SEC Coach of the Year Clark is the only skipper in the league to take the conference trophy away from UA since that school joined the fold in 1991, as he guided the Lady Vols to the past two titles and paced Florida to glory in 1996 and 1997 when he coached the Gators from 1992-2001.
Those triumphs, while certainly impressive, aren't what drives UT's leader. It is the pursuit of getting the absolute best out of his athletes and teams that motivates Clark each and every day. That determination, and his team's corresponding effort, resulted in Tennessee winning the school's first-ever NCAA Women's Indoor Track & Field Championship a year ago.
If the Lady Vols can summon the confidence and talent to ascend to the top of the track & field world in such a short period of time, then it is indeed realistic to visualize the Orange and White as cross country national champions one day. How soon that will occur remains to be seen, but the repeated pattern of winning at the conference and regional levels has set the wheels in motion toward much bigger things.
An experienced quintet of returnees and a quartet of newcomers will dictate just how big a season Tennessee will have in 2005. Those two groups must mesh and not only face the task of living up to Clark's high expectations and the challenges of their SEC foes, but also they must join forces to overcome the departure of a duo of crucial Lady Vols. Gone from a year ago are All-SEC and All-South Region seniors Brooke Novak and Elizabeth McCalley. <
>Attempting to offset those losses will be team leaders Felicia Guliford and Katie Flaute, who are back with a wealth of experience and honors from a squad that chiseled a school-best 121-25 won-lost record last season. They will be joined by veterans Megan Cauble, Carly Matthews and Mindy Sullivan to provide Clark with a dependable corps of returnees who will assist the Big Orange women as they aim for a four-peat of regional titles and NCAA berths and a three-peat of SEC crowns.
The MVP of the 2004 squad, Guliford is a two-time all-region honoree, earning distinction for 14th-place finishes in 2002 and last season. The junior from Gallup, N.M., who redshirted in 2003, picked up her first All-SEC certificate a year ago for an impressive fourth-place effort that spurred Team Orange to victory at the league meet in Fayetteville, Ark. If those performances introduced her as one of the nation's up-and-coming distance runners, then her SEC Outdoor 5000m victory and her SEC Indoor 3000m/5000m double cemented her status as a first-rate athlete.
"Felicia Guliford has just scratched the surface of her abilities and is just starting to show what she is capable of doing," Clark said. "There's a lot more there. She really wasn't running at the level during the cross country season that she was indoors and outdoors on the track. Her confidence level is high, and she believes she can have the same type of success in cross country."
Flaute's development from 2003 to 2004, meanwhile, was key to Tennessee's fortunes in her redshirt sophomore campaign. Now a junior, the Dayton, Ohio, product will be counted on to take another step forward and make an even bigger impact in 2005. Typically UT's third or fourth finisher last season, the absence of Novak and McCalley means Flaute must now move closer to the front. Finishing 10th overall to glean all-league acclaim at the SEC meet and also crossing the line as one of Tennessee's five all-region performers a year ago, Flaute has earned the confidence of her coach as she enjoys her fourth campaign in Knoxville.
One of five seniors on the roster, Sullivan is like Guliford and Flaute in that she is a recipient of all-conference honors. The difference is, the Lubbock, Texas, native earned that distinction in 2003 when she placed 11th in helping UT win the first of its back-to-back pieces of SEC hardware. If Tennessee is to successfully defend its place atop the league in 2005, Sullivan must return to the form she displayed as a sophomore. The Texan contributed to UT's team scoring totals twice in 2004, but her SEC and NCAA South Regional performances of 28th and 37th, respectively, were not those occasions. Consistency, for Sullivan, will be the key in her final go-round on the trail.
Hailing from Knoxville, Cauble is another senior seeking to recapture the magic of the past. The product of West High School earned All-SEC status in 2003 and was the recipient of All-South Region certificates in 2002 and 2003. Cauble logged team runner-up finishes in her first three races in 2004 before holding down the number-five spot for UT in the three meets that followed. Her re-emergence in 2005 will be crucial to the Big Orange cause.
While Matthews does not enter her senior campaign with individual honors to her credit, she came very close in 2004 as she began to show flashes of her ability. She missed All-SEC kudos by one spot with a career-best 15th-place conference outing that was critical to the Big Orange's championship drive. The Winston-Salem, N.C., product also aided the scoring sum in four other meets, including at the NCAA Championships, and was UT's sixth finisher, taking 32nd overall, at the NCAA South Regional.
"Like Felicia, Katie has been in this program four years," Clark said. "Megan, Mindy and Carly have also been under pressure in the SEC, regional and NCAA meets and know what's at stake. They all know what it takes to be successful in those environments, and we'll count on them because of that and what they have done in the past."
Other returnees contributing depth to the squad will be seniors Rachel Zamata (Henderson, Tenn.) and Caitlin Ward (Gibsonia, Pa.), juniors Edra Finley (Mobile, Ala.) and Robin Mortel (Brooklyn, N.Y.), and sophomore Leslie Treherne (Chesapeake, Va.). Mortel and Treherne each saw action a year ago at the Tennessee Invitational, while Zamata had three appearances in 2003 before missing all of last season while fulfilling the requirements for an academic internship.
Filling out the roster for Clark are four very valuable freshmen, who will be counted upon to make the adjustment to collegiate running in quick fashion. Joining the Lady Vol family are Rolanda Bell (Laurelton, N.Y.), Sarah Bowman (Warrenton, Va.), Kimarra McDonald (Lumberton, N.J.) and Leah Soro (Knoxville, Tenn.).
The most highly-touted and recognizable of the newcomers is Bowman, but the 2005 USATF Juniors and Pan Am Juniors 1500-meter champ is known more for her prowess on the oval than she is on the course. With a body of work that stretches from 800 to 3200 meters and a list of accolades that includes 15 state titles, including a 2002 cross country crown and a 3200m title on the oval in 2005, the three-time All-USA Today selection clearly has the talent, endurance and determination to provide an immediate impact on the trails this fall.
Bell, meanwhile, was a four-year letterwinner in cross country and track at Sacred Heart Academy on Long Island, earning All-LI honors four times on the hard surface and becoming a regular at the Penn Relays and the Milrose Games in the middle distance events. Her exposure to, and success at, those types of national events caught Clark's eye and gave the UT head man reason to believe Sacred Heart's Athlete of the Year was an individual with the athletic gifts and character to make a difference in his program.
Providing a local flavor will be Soro, whose move from Knoxville's Catholic to West High School ignited an intriguing and promising distance career. Formerly a sprinter for the Irish, Soro's arrival at WHS saw her shifted to the longer races, and her abilities in that realm became apparent soon afterward. Competing only as a senior for the Rebels, who also sent along recent products Christy Baird and Cauble to become UT harriers, Soro blossomed into the 2004 Prep Xtra, Knoxville Interscholastic League and regional cross country runner of the year. The sky appears to be the limit for the area product.
Rounding out the crop of rookies is McDonald, a New Jersey middle distance standout who cites five-time Olympian, former Lady Vol and coach Clark's sister, Joetta Clark, as the athlete she most admires. Hailing from Rancocas Valley Regional High School, the same program that produced ex-UT track & field star Tonya Lee, McDonald owns school records in everything from 400 meters to the mile. She was the Garden State's 2004 indoor champion in the 800 meters and would appear to require more development in the longer distances because of her previous focus in the middle area.
"Right now, I am counting on people who have been there before," Clark said. "Bowman could break into our top five, but she hasn't run a lot of cross country, so we'll bring her along slowly. The same goes for Bell, Soro and McDonald, and we'll see where that takes us. I believe they all have the ability to step up and be a factor."
For Tennessee to defend its turf in the SEC, several of the new arrivals will need to mature. Arkansas, which UT narrowly defeated on the Lady Razorbacks' home course in 2004, and Georgia, which returns a talented cast from a third-place league finish a year ago, will be among the schools chomping at the bit to de-throne the Lady Vols. Despite his loss of key personnel, Clark carries forward confidence in the Big Orange's conference triumph in Fayetteville without scoring contributions from returning All-SEC honorees Novak and Sullivan.
"This league is not getting any easier," Clark said. "Arkansas returns a lot of experience, and Georgia has its whole team back. We lost McCalley and Novak from last year's team, but I believe we will still be contenders.
"Novak had breathing problems and didn't score at the conference meet. Sullivan didn't either, and we still managed to win. That gives us hope that we can still contend with the returnees we have and the newcomers. We will be ready when the time comes."
To get the Lady Vols prepared for the time of year Clark likes to call "the championship part of the season," he has lined up four meets designed to test his squad's mettle. The Big Orange women will break the seal on the campaign on Sept. 2, as they travel to the mid-state to compete in the Belmont Opener in Nashville. After two more weeks of training, Tennessee will host its only home meet of the year on Sept. 16, as Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville once again serves as the site of the Tennessee Invitational. Team Orange will be aiming for its second straight win at the event and its fourth in seven tries.
Following a two-meet swing through Pennsylvania for the Paul Short Invitational in Bethlehem on Oct. 1 and the Nittany Lion Invitational in University Park on Oct. 15, Clark and company will travel to Baton Rouge, La., for the SEC Championships on Oct. 29. Two weeks later, UT will head to Gainesville, Fla., for the NCAA South Regional on Nov. 12, where Clark will attempt to claim victory on his former team's course and earn UT's fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Championships. For the second year in a row and the third time in four seasons, the national meet will be contested in Terre Haute, Ind., where UT will try to continue its upward climb.
"We just want to keep moving forward," Clark said. "We've won conference and regionals, but we want to try and do that again and make a bigger impact nationally. The goal is to be a top-ten team and contend for national championships. We've done that in track & field, and we want to do the same thing in cross country."
At Tennessee, those kinds of aspirations aren't a stretch. Under the direction of Clark, it has been become clear that "Winning Is...Reality."