Oct. 26, 2005
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The University of Tennessee women's cross country team will be aiming for a three-peat Saturday morning, as the 21st-ranked Lady Vols face off against their league foes in the Southeastern Conference Championship meet at the Fort Jackson Military Base in Columbia, S.C. Race time is 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time on the 6,000-meter Hilton Field course.
Under the direction of fourth-year Head Coach J.J. Clark, the UT women claimed SEC titles in 2003 and 2004 and are seeking to become only the second program in league history to reel off three consecutive titles. Arkansas is the only other school to achieve that feat, posting a pair of five-year sprees from 1991 to 1995 and from 1998 to 2002. Clark-led teams had a hand in stopping both of those streaks, as his former school, Florida, notched back-to-back crowns in 1996 and 1997 to halt the first UA skein, while his UT charges put the breaks on the Lady Razorbacks' second run on the hardware with triumphs the past two seasons.
With No. 17 Arkansas, No. 28 Georgia and unranked Vanderbilt, which toppled a short-handed Big Orange team at the Belmont Opener in the first meet of the season, Clark knows his 88-5 Lady Vols face a difficult challenge on Saturday morning as they try to defend their SEC supremacy. A year ago, Arkansas (57) and Georgia (63) were right on Tennessee's heels as the Lady Vols overcame a rough day by Brooke Novak to tally 55 points and stave off the Lady'Backs and Lady Bulldogs on UA's home course.
"Right now, I believe we are a better team than we were last year," Clark said. "The problem is, I think the other teams are better than they were, too. We need to be ready to step up Saturday, and we'll see how it all shakes out.
"We're not thinking about what has happened in the past. We just want to do the best we can to put ourselves into position to win, whether it's our first or 10th time. It's the same process every time. We make sure we are focused, and we prepare ourselves to win."
Clark will come to the conference table with a mixture of experience and youth. On one hand, he has the services of juniors Katie Flaute (Dayton, Ohio) and Felicia Guliford (Gallup, N.M.) and seniors Carly Matthews (Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Mindy Sullivan (Lubbock, Texas). That quartet has been instrumental in UT's consecutive SEC wins, its three straight NCAA South Region triumphs and its three NCAA Championship appearances in as many seasons.
Guliford and Flaute forged finishes of fourth and 10th, respectively, at last year's SEC gathering to earn All-SEC accolades, while Matthews missed all-league acclaim by one spot with a 15th-place outcome. Though Sullivan didn't count toward the team score in last year's conference meet, her 11th-place performance in 2003 earned her all-league honors and was a catalyst in UT winning Clark's first SEC trophy during his tenure in Knoxville.
This year, a greatly-improved Flaute paced UT at the Paul Short Run and PSU National Invitational while also charting personal records at 4K, 5K and 6K distances. After a late debut in meet three, Guliford appears back in the same form that enabled her to lead UT cross country to the finish line four times in 2004 and win 5000-meter titles at both the SEC Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Matthews, meanwhile, has elevated her performances as well, confidently filling the three and four spots for Team Orange, while Sullivan has contributed as the squad's fifth scorer in three of four meets in 2005.
As for the cast of newcomers, freshmen Rolanda Bell (Laurelton, N.Y.), Sarah Bowman (Warrenton, Va.), Kimarra McDonald (Lumberton, N.J.) and Leah Soro (Knoxville, Tenn.) have meshed well with the veterans and made an impact in their first collegiate campaign. Bowman and Soro quickly established themselves as key components of the 2005 squad and have filled scoring roles in each meet they have competed in this year.
Bowman became the initial Lady Vol freshman to win her first two collegiate meets, racing to victory at the 4K Belmont Opener and 5K Tennessee Invitational, and scored in the No. 5 position with a 46th-place showing in her first 6K race at the PSU National Invitational. Soro, meanwhile, scored in second position at both the Belmont Opener and Paul Short Run and was the No. 3 contributor in the Tennessee and PSU meets.
Bell and McDonald have appeared in all four races as rookies and have held down the No. 6 and No. 7 spots for the Big Orange for most of the campaign. If one of UT's top five runners falters, as happened with Novak a year ago, both first-year performers must be ready to pick up the slack.
"The training has been done," Clark said. "We've had the normal things like colds and aches and pains this year, but all in all, we're in a good spot with that as well as with team chemistry. We're ready to go and see what happens."