Sept. 3, 2009
Sharon Dickie, Brooke Novak, Felicia Guliford, Katie Flaute, Sarah Bowman. Those names top the charts of women's cross country greats during J.J. Clark's first seven years as head coach at the University of Tennessee.
Each time these classics graduate and move on, there's a temptation to assume that UT's most recent run of success will fade like the career of a one-hit wonder. With the acumen often associated with great music producers, though, Clark seeks out and grooms new Lady Vol stars. He fuses those front-women with a supporting cast, gets them to believe in themselves "...And The Beat Goes On."
While the UT hit-maker has assembled blockbuster releases that have enabled Tennessee to make five NCAA Championship appearances and reign over the Southeastern Conference from 2003-05 and the NCAA South Region from 2002-05, his formula also has developed a program that displays incredible consistency. That even-keeled environment has allowed Team Orange to avoid the typical peaks and valleys of the sport and finish no lower than third in the league and fourth in the region during Clark's tenure.
Avoiding a letdown in 2009 will be a huge key for Clark and company, considering they lost superstar Bowman, the Big Orange label's first All-American since 2000 and a four-time All-SEC and three-time All-South Region performer, to graduation. Also gone from a year ago is Rolanda Bell, who likewise will leave shoes to be filled after scoring for the Lady Vols in all six meets last season, mostly in the four or five position.
"Obviously, we lost two key seniors in Sarah and Rolanda," Clark said. "Sarah ran especially well nationally, regionally and throughout the entire year for us. That's why you need your team to step up, and you develop, guide and train them throughout the year, so you can cover these graduation departures.
"Rolanda leaves a void to fill, too. We have to make sure we are dotting our i's and crossing our t's and training well and running smartly to cover for these losses. I feel good and believe the team can be as strong or better than last year. We just have to put in the proper work, get into the right rhythm and make it happen."
Like last year, Clark expects a trio of runners to be the beat-keepers for this season's unit. Seniors Jackie Areson and Katie Van Horn, and junior Brittany Sheffey have the talent to take their careers to a different level in 2009.
Areson is UT's top returning runner, qualifying for the NCAA Championships as an individual a year ago and finishing 104th. As UT's usual number-two harrier, she raced to all-region acclaim for the second time in her career, carding an 11th-place showing in the NCAA South Regional at the Lady Vols' home venue, Lambert Acres Golf Club.
Expected to join Areson and Bowman to form a strong and harmonious trio a year ago, injuries prevented Van Horn from making it on stage. Therefore, she redshirted the cross country season and began her journey back during track & field season.
If her career-best 5K effort at last March's Penn Relays is any indication, Van Horn could be on the road to a fine closing act. A season like 2007, when she was both an all-league and all-region performer, would certainly heighten Tennessee's chances of making a splash at the championship meets.
The third lead position for Team Orange is expected to be occupied by Sheffey, who collected All-SEC and All-South Region kudos in 2008 for placing 12th and 23rd at those meets, respectively.
Sheffey has scored in all 12 races for Tennessee since arriving in 2007. Her ability to bounce back from an illness that short-circuited her 2009 track & field campaign will be crucial to the squad's potential rise to prominence this fall.
"We're a very experienced team this year, and we're looking for these three to show great leadership for us by going out there and doing," Clark said. "That means going out there and running well and being consistent. Those are things that are very important for our team and our success this year.
"Jackie, Katie and Brittany are all very important to our program in different ways. Whether it's running up front or closing the deal in the top five, they all offer valuable assets to this team. We have very experienced leadership, and I feel very good about this season from that standpoint."
Senior Phoebe Wright returns for her final season after enjoying her most successful cross country venture a year ago. Known more for her prowess on the oval in the 800 meters, where she swept SEC Indoor and Outdoor titles last season, the veteran contributed to the scoring cause on the trails in all six meets in 2008.
Wright ran third on the team and placed 23rd at SECs, and scored in fifth and finished 42nd overall at the region meet as a junior. Her commitment to cross country and ability to elevate her level of performance will go a long way in determining just what kind of rhythm Tennessee can generate in 2009.
A trio of freshmen hit the collegiate tour last season and gained some valuable experience in pressure situations. Now sophomores, Chanelle Price, Elizabeth Altizer and Ally Colvin will move more into the spotlight and try to develop the consistent performances that earn rave reviews from their coach.
Price belted out loud and strong in her 2008 collegiate debut. The rookie led Tennessee to the finish line and placed eighth overall at the 4K Belmont-VU Opener. She would compete in two more shows, the Tennessee Invitational and Brooks Paul Short Run, before a leg injury forced her to come off the road for the remainder of the schedule.
After taking a long while to get back up to speed on the oval, Price turned in a career-best 2:01.33 readout in the 800 meters this summer as if to demonstrate her fitness and star power in that event. If she can mesh that speed with some long distance stamina and toughness this season, the sky will be the limit for the Lady Vols.
While Price made only three appearances as a freshman, Altizer and Colvin were on the bus every trip and competing at every stop on the tour. Typically, they took turns filling the six or seven slots on the squad, but Altizer did chart a fifth-place team finish and overall showing of 34th at the Belmont Opener.
Colvin closed strong by filling the No. 6 role for her squad and crossing the line in 59th place at the NCAA South Regional, while Altizer's best postseason outing was at the SEC meet, where she was sixth on the team and 56th overall. Both are hoping to bounce back strong as sophomores after having to curtail their running during the outdoor campaign due to nagging injuries.
Elizabeth Tiller is back for her sophomore campaign after making five appearances in 2009, including the SEC Championships. The Peyton Manning and Haslam Academic Scholar will continue training in her quest to become a scoring contributor to the Big Orange.
Senior Michele Levy will hit the trails for UT for the first time after starting her collegiate career as a walk-on for the track & field team last spring. Levy, who Clark discovered training for a marathon on campus, ran the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the SEC Outdoor meet last season, finishing 17th in the longer race.
Sophomore Charity Honeycutt, who ran in one race in 2008 before the curtains closed on her rookie season, as well as redshirt freshmen Ramzee Fondren, Kelsey Kane and Chelsea Knotts, returns. Clark would welcome the emergence of someone in that group and the development of the rest of his less experienced runners.
Closing out the roster are redshirt freshman Andrea Ferri, who like Levy joined the track team in the spring as a walk-on, senior Jená Murphy and junior Kim White. Like Ferri and Levy, Murphy and White have not seen action in cross country.
All told, Clark will be working with a roster of 16, including eight returning letterwinners, in his first season as UT's director of men's and women's track & field and cross country. Three of his veterans have been all-region award-winners (Areson, Sheffey, Van Horn), and two (Sheffey, Van Horn) have been all-league selections.
It is with that lineup Clark will embark on the 2009 tour, which includes several familiar stops and one new one.
For the fifth year in a row, the Lady Vols start the show at the Belmont-VU Opener in Nashville. UT, which won on Percy Warner Park's 4,000-meter Vaughn's Creek Course in 2007 and posted runner-up efforts in 2005, 2006 and 2008, will toe the line at 5:30 p.m. Central Time on Sept. 4 in the debut event of Clark's eighth season at Rocky Top.
Meet number two will feature a joint venture by the Big Orange women and men, as the 10th edition of the Tennessee Invitational is contested on Sept. 19 at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville. The ladies' 5K affair is scheduled to go off at approximately 9:15 a.m., with the UT women aiming for their eighth team victory at the meet, which is held in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Lady Vols will hit the trail at the meet for the first time in five years without Bowman. She graduated after winning Tennessee Invitational titles in 2005 and 2008.
For the sixth straight year, Clark will take his troops to Bethlehem, Pa., to compete in the Brooks Paul Short Run at Lehigh University's Goodman Campus Course. Tennessee finished sixth out of 43 schools a year ago at the 6K race and will attempt to improve upon that outcome in 2009 in the 11 a.m. competition on Oct. 2.
After alternating between the Penn State National Invitational and the NCAA Pre-Meet the past several years, Clark opted to join the Tennessee men in traveling to Charlottesville, Va., for the Panorama Farms Invitational on Oct. 16. The 6K race, hosted by the University of Virginia, is scheduled to get underway at 4 p.m. ET.
The final three races are of the championship variety, and all are at the 6K distance. First, there's the SEC Championships in Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 31, followed by the NCAA South Regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 14. If UT can card a top-two outcome at the regional meet or earn an at-large bid, the squad will head to Terre Haute, Ind., to compete in the program's 11th NCAA Championship meet on Nov. 23.
Tennessee is coming off third-place finishes at the SEC and regional meets and wound up just short a year ago in earning the squad's sixth NCAA Championship invitation during the Clark era. UT will travel to the 11 a.m. CT SEC meet at the Ole Miss Golf Course with a pair of previous all-league honorees in Van Horn and Sheffey. Team Orange is chasing its first league crown since Clark's club won three straight trophies from 2003 to 2005.
As for the regional meet, a trio of prior all-region runners in Areson, Sheffey and Van Horn will look to pace UT in the 11 a.m. CT festivities at the Harry Pritchett Running Park. The Lady Vols hope to rediscover the formula that enabled them to win four consecutive region titles from 2002 to 2005. Areson also will try to lead Tennessee back to the NCAA meet for the first time since a five-year spree of appearances from 2002-06.
"We have basically kept the same schedule since I've been here, but this year we added a little something new into the mix," said Clark. "We're going to go along with our men's team to the Panorama Farms Invitational at Virginia and try something different. I believe it will help us get to our destination of running well during the championship part of the year.
That's a topic with which Clark has become a virtuoso.
"I want to win; that's something we've always done," Clark said. "We're going to win and do the best we can of overcoming obstacles. To do that takes commitment and focus on our goals.
"We have to make sure that we stay on top of doing things the right way. That means getting our rest and doing the little things right that will allow us to achieve big things down the road."
Year after year, Clark is able to accomplish just that. The personnel changes, but the results remain the same "...And The Beat Goes On."