Oct. 14, 2009
By Eric Trainer, Associate Director of Media Relations
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee men's and women's cross country teams will compete in their final regular-season races of the campaign on Friday afternoon, as they travel to Charlottesville, Va., to take part in the Panorama Farms Invitational, hosted by the University of Virginia.
With the SEC Championships looming in two weeks and the NCAA South Regional four weeks away, the PFI will be the final tune-up opportunity for both squads as they head into the most critical stretch of the season. The courses will be the same distances as at the SEC meet, with the women running a 6,000-meter race at 4 p.m. Eastern Time and the men traversing an 8,000-meter trail at 4:45 p.m.
Expected to be among the women's field are No. 2 Villanova, No. 10 Virginia, No. 14 Duke, North Carolina, Texas A&M, American and Richmond. In the men's race, the same schools are projected to be on hand, with the ranked teams being No. 15 Virginia and No. 26 Duke.
"This Friday's meet in Charlottesville is the final race heading into the championship portion of the season," UT Men's Head Coach George Watts said. "We have raced a very competitive schedule this year, and this weekend is no exception. The Panorama Farms Invitational will include several ranked teams in the field on another challenging course."
The Vols have placed in the top three of their previous three meets this season and are coming off a third-place finish at the Greater Louisville Classic on Oct. 3. Watts, though, wasn't satisfied with his squad's performance at that meet, where his team's one through five spread dropped from 29 and 38 seconds, respectively, in the first two competitions to 1:03.57 two weekends ago.
"We struggled some in our last meet, but I believe we are on an upswing and are ready for our best meet of the season," Watts said. "We will want to tighten the gap between our top seven finishers to back under one minute and our scoring five to 45 seconds or less.
"We have a fairly solid top six, but I would like to see our seven through 12 guys challenge for a scoring position this weekend, solidify their spot for the conference championship and strengthen our team depth."
Through the first three meets, junior Peter Sigilai has paced UT twice, including an 11th-place effort in Louisville, while classmate Michael Spooner led the way with a runner-up outcome at the Colonial Inter-Regional Challenge on Sept. 26. Others who have contributed consistently to the scoring tally include freshman Leoule Degfae, sophomore Chris Bodary, junior Steve Fassino and senior Mike Brodsky.
Women's Head Coach J.J. Clark, meanwhile, has tried to bring his team along each week and close the gap between his three veterans and an inexperienced supporting cast. With senior Jackie Areson setting the tone the first three races, and junior Brittany Sheffey and senior Katie Van Horn working their way closer to their teammate in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, Clark is looking for his four and five runners to reduce the chasm between them and their teammates and to strengthen the squad for its postseason run.
"We have gotten stronger and stronger as the season has gone along," Clark said. "We'll see exactly where we are as the next couple of races unfold. We've battled some health issues with flu and colds and all of that, but I think every team has those issues. I feel good about the next couple of meets and look forward to seeing how we respond."
The eighth-year skipper said his attention this weekend won't be on the ranked teams Tennessee will face but rather on the improvement he hopes his team will display.
"I don't typically focus on who is in these meets," Clark said. "I concern myself more with making sure our team does what it is supposed to do. We want to get our group tighter and tighter and try to get some good performances from everyone."
As for Areson, Clark would love to see the reigning SEC Cross Country Athlete of the Week continue her impressive showing this season, which includes three top-five finishes and the league's top 6K time at 20:02. He'd also like to have others rise to her level and give Tennessee a chance to bring down its team score as the SEC and regional meets approach.
"Jackie has been our top finisher over the last three meets, and I look forward to her maintaining those types of performances through the second half of the season," Clark said. "Hopefully, we can get some people in the same range as she is, and that will help us and our total team score in the coming weeks."