Brooke Novak is Tennessee's top returner from last year.
Sept. 8, 2003
Spend even a small amount of time around the University of Tennessee women's cross country program, and it is apparent the standards are high. Academic excellence, character, teamwork, tradition and competing for Southeastern Conference and NCAA trophies are all part of the expectations of being a Lady Volunteer. These principles serve as ever-present yardsticks for second-year Head Coach J.J. Clark and his troops, as they strive daily to make sure they are "Measuring Up."
Clark deserves a great deal of credit for re-calibrating the way success is calculated at Tennessee. In his inaugural campaign in Knoxville, the two-time SEC Coach of the Year guided the Big Orange to a 59-34-1 record, four meet victories and a third-place result at the SEC Championships. More significantly, however, he directed Tennessee to the program's initial NCAA South Region title on its home course and a berth in the NCAA Championships, where the Lady Vols responded with a tie for 28th place in the school's first visit since 1998 and only its sixth appearance ever. For his craftsmanship, his peers bestowed upon him the title of South Region Coach of the Year.
Those accomplishments not only enhanced the program's tradition, but they also raised the bar for the 2003 squad. The classroom performance a year ago also set the tone for the current crop of student-athletes to follow, as 11 members of the 14-runner roster were named to the Lady Vol Academic Honor Roll.
In terms of model athletes whom they could emulate, members of the 2003 squad need look no further than recent graduate Sharon Dickie, who last season became the first female UT cross country runner to garner all-conference and all-region acclaim as well as qualify for the NCAA Championships four times in her career. Dickie, who reeled off a string of 19-consecutive meets where she finished as UT's top runner, may have exhausted her collegiate eligibility but will remain an integral part of the program as she serves as the team's administrative graduate assistant.
That said, the decision to do what it takes and the effort required of meeting any or all of the lofty standards are in the hands of each member of the current Lady Vol squad. Those issues weren't a problem in Clark's first season in Knoxville, and they don't figure to be stumbling blocks anytime in the future under the savvy skipper. The athletes he inherited have subscribed to his philosophy and training methods, and the young women he has brought into the program were chosen because they have previously demonstrated the necessary athletic, academic and personality traits.
A veteran who projects to be one of the team's cornerstones is junior Brooke Novak, who has run in the shadows of Dickie the past two seasons. The Kaukauna, Wis., native hasn't gone unnoticed, however, as she collected All-SEC accolades in each of her two seasons (10th in 2001, eighth in 2002) and All-South Region acclaim in 2002 for a fourth-place result. Novak is poised to become only the sixth runner in the duration of the program to gain membership to the all-conference squad three times, and clearly enters the year as UT's top returnee.
"Brooke came back from summer vacation in better condition, and she is running equal to or better than Sharon Dickie did last year," Clark said. "She really came on strong last year and performed very well at the conference and regional meets and gained great experience in her first NCAA Championships."
Challenging Novak to be the team's top runner should be sophomore Felicia Guliford, who also rated as an all-region choice as a rookie by crossing the finish line 14th at the NCAA South meet on UT's Lambert Acres course. The Gallup, N.M., product was Tennessee's number-two finisher on three occasions as a freshman and just missed winning the UTC Invitational by a fraction of a second as Dickie leaned to nip her at the tape.
"Felicia had a good, solid freshman season," Clark said. "She is one of three Foot Locker Cross Country Championship finalists on this squad, so that tells you she was one of the best prep runners in the nation. She and Brooke have the potential to be a great one-two punch."
Guliford wasn't the only first-year runner who made an instant splash. Knoxville native Megan Cauble developed very quickly as a freshman and is the third of UT's returning All-South Region performers. While Cauble was 20th at the region meet as the Lady Vols' fourth runner, it was her 20th-place, number-three team finish at the SEC Championships that served as her collegiate coming-out party.
While that trio joined Dickie in attracting the bulk of the attention a year ago, Jessica Southers was quietly going about her business, holding down the fort at the four and five scoring slots. The senior from Ashland, Ky., has been a consistent team contributor for the Big Orange during her career and possesses an All-SEC certificate from her 13th-place piece of work in 2001. Southers' ability to duplicate that type of output in 2003 will be critical to the team's postseason aspirations.
"Based on last year, Brooke and Felicia should be our top two runners, but there is potential for Megan, Jessica and other team members to grow into leadership roles for us," Clark said. "I want them all to run well, obviously, but it also would be a very nice scenario to see them compete with the mindset and intensity that they are our number-one runner."
Junior Elizabeth McCalley and senior Christy Baird, who both hail from Knoxville, round out the list of runners who have graced the scoring five for the Orange and White at least once. McCalley was in the top quintet at a pair of meets in 2002 and was 25th at the SEC meet in 2001. Baird, meanwhile, is attempting to battle back from injuries that kept her out of every competition but one last season. Her determination and toughness, which enabled her to chart a No. 20 result at the 2001 conference gathering, would be a definite asset to Clark's club if she can regain her previous prowess on the course.
"I'm encouraged that Christy is returning for her fifth year," Clark said. "She was a top-20 SEC finisher two years ago, so she has the potential to step up and run with the leaders. It's all going to depend on how much training she can get in."
Immediately joining the fray for a spot in the upper echelon will be two promising returnees and a pair of newcomers with experience at other NCAA Division I programs. Redshirt freshman Katie Flaute of Dayton, Ohio, and sophomore Mindy Sullivan of Lubbock, Texas, both demonstrated great potential in their initial season in Knoxville and should be positioned to make a run for a spot in the top group.
"Katie showed some signs of being able to help us last year before the injury bug bit her, and Mindy, like Felicia, was a Foot Locker finalist during her high school days," Clark said. "Both Katie and Mindy are going to be right in the middle of the mix."
Sullivan, Flaute and the rest of the team will have a fight on their hands, as senior Lindsay Hyatt and sophomore Carly Matthews transferred to UT after earning their Division I stripes at Stanford and Georgia Tech, respectively. Hyatt, who earned a degree in American studies from the West Coast institution and is enrolled in graduate school at Tennessee, is an All-America-caliber 800-meter and relay standout on the track who also has the endurance to make a difference on the course. Matthews is armed with more tangible experience on the cross country front, having ascended to a role as one of the Ramblin' Wreck's top producers by the end of the 2002 slate, including a performance as the team's first finisher at the Atlantic Coast Conference meet.
"Lindsay and Carly immediately infuse quality, depth and experience into our team, because they both have run cross country at the collegiate level," Clark said. "Having lost only one of our top five runners from 2002, the addition of those two should make us a very solid team."
Closing out the roster are sophomore Rachel Zamata of Henderson, Tenn., and a quartet of 800m specialists, including junior All-American Nicole Cook (Petersburg, Va.), senior Kameisha Bennett (Dayton, Ohio), junior Antoinette Gorham (Glenarden, Md.) and freshman Leslie Treherne (Chespeake, Va.). Clark expects for this group of athletes to not only work on conditioning, but to challenge for positions on the travel squad as well.
"They all will be working on strength and getting ready for the indoor season, but each one of them must be ready in case we need her during the cross country season," Clark said. "We look for all five to continue to develop, and we'll see if any of them might be able to fill a void in our lineup."
Fortunately for the sophomore coach, this year's schedule begins with a date at home on Sept. 12, as the Lady Vols welcome No. 14 North Carolina State and No. 23 Wisconsin to the Tennessee/adidas Cross Country Invitational at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville. Start time for the 5K race is 6:30 p.m. ET.
"It's shaping up to be a pretty good event, even though most will consider this a training meet," Clark said. "Some of the teams won't run all of their top kids, and we'll be smart about who we suit up as well. We'll definitely take advantage of running at home, get some work done and see how we stack up early in the season."
After another 5K meet on Sept. 19 at the Crimson Classic Invitational in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Tennessee will undertake consecutive 6K races in Pennsylvania on Oct. 4 and Oct. 18. During those visits to the Keystone State, UT will compete in the Paul Short Invitational in Bethlehem and the Penn State National Invitational in University Park, respectively.
On Nov. 3, the "championship season" begins in Athens, Ga., as the Big Orange takes part in the 21st-annual SEC meet. At stake for the team from Rocky Top is an opportunity to chart the program's third-consecutive top-three league finish. That feat is something that hasn't been accomplished by the Lady Vols since the 1983, 1984 and 1985 squads did so in the first three years the meets were contested.
Two weeks later, the defending NCAA South Region champs will have to protect their hardware on the road after hoisting the trophy at Lambert Acres last November. Their title defense will take place at Indian Pines Golf Course in Auburn, Ala., on Nov. 15. Should things go well, a second-straight trip to the NCAA Championships would be in the offing, with a Nov. 24 trip to Waterloo, Iowa, on the line this time.
The Lady Volunteers begin the campaign with a preseason league prediction of fourth, which was assigned by the SEC's coaches. While that pick may seem slightly low for a team that returns three of its top five runners from a third-place SEC club, Clark is mindful that standards in Knoxville have been elevated by last year's performance.
"Even though the SEC poll ranks us fourth, the expectations are higher for this program," Clark said. "They are higher, both internally and externally, because we are a back-to-back top-three league finisher, won the 2002 South Regional title and made a trip to the NCAA Championships. Regardless, we will always run as if we are the team to beat.
"I am very excited about this season and this group because of the development of our returning runners and the addition of some experienced new members to our team," Clark continued. "I feel that way even though we lost Sharon Dickie, who has been a tremendous asset to our program."
What will matter most, however, to Clark and his troops is how they feel at the end of each day, week and month of the season as they look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they are "Measuring Up." As Clark can well attest, his team will have ample opportunities in the classroom and on the course to answer that question with an affirmative response in 2003.