Oct. 27, 2004
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- With an impressive total of five runners ranked among the league's top 10 for 6 kilometers, the 14th-ranked University of Tennessee women's cross country team will travel to Fayetteville, Ark., this weekend in defense of its 2003 Southeastern Conference championship. The Lady Vols and their SEC counterparts will compete for the 2004 league trophy at 9 a.m. Central time at the 6K University of Arkansas Agri Park course.
The Big Orange women, who boast a 78-5 record on the season and three meet victories in four outings thus far, will take aim at the program's fourth conference trophy and attempt to win the school's first back-to-back pieces of hardware in women's cross country. Third-year Head Coach J.J. Clark will try to do so with a veteran lineup of harriers who have produced five of the SEC's top 10 6K times in 2004.
That quintet includes three-time All-SEC performer Brooke Novak, whose 20:43.13 effort at the Paul Short Run on Sept. 25 ranks her with the number-two 6K clocking in the conference behind Auburn's Angela Homan (20:27.0). Joining Novak among the league's top 10 are sophomore Felicia Guliford (20:55.3, 3rd) as well as junior Megan Cauble (21:10.06, 6th), sophomore Katie Flaute (21:24.86, 7th) and senior Elizabeth McCalley (21:26.38, 10th).
Novak and Cauble finished third and sixth a year ago at the SEC gathering and earned all-conference accolades, while McCalley placed 20th and was UT's fifth scoring runner. Also contributing to the team point total in 2003 were Mindy Sullivan (11th place/All-SEC/UT's third scorer), who returns, and Lindsay Hyatt (17th place/UT's fourth scorer), who has graduated.
The departure of Hyatt could have been a more costly blow, but the sensational transformation of Guliford from a redshirt season into one of the team's leaders a year later and the blossoming of Flaute (22nd overall at SECs last season) in 2004 have actually strengthened the Lady Vols. Add in junior Carly Matthews (30th at SECs in 2003) and senior Nicole Cook, and Clark also has more depth at his disposal than he had a year ago en route to his first SEC triumph at UT to go along with a pair (1996, 1997) during his days as coach at Florida.
"Everyone returning for us is key, because it means we should be poised in our preparation as well as our attack during the race," Clark said. "We have veterans of both SEC and NCAA meets, so those experiences should help keep everyone calm and focused on the objective."
While his talented squad was the preseason pick of the conference coaches to win this weekend's event, Clark knows his charges will face a difficult test from No. 17 Georgia and No. 20 Arkansas. Those squads were the second and third-place choices of the league's skippers prior to the 2004 campaign after they finished in that order behind Tennessee at the 2003 SEC meet in Athens, Ga.
"It doesn't matter whether we're picked first or fifth, where the meet is, or the type of course, the focus is on getting the job done," Clark said. "We're ready to go and do like we always do, which is run hard and compete to win."
As Clark and crew take aim at defending their title, they must do so on the home trail of the team that has won more SEC cross country trophies (10) than any other school. The good news for UT fans, however, is that the coach directing that effort is the man who halted Arkansas streaks of five consecutive SEC meet wins in 1996 (while at Florida) and last season. The 2003 SEC Coach of the Year is expecting the meet to be a tight affair and says the outcome will be determined by the team that has the best day, rather than by crowd support, course familiarity, preseason predictions, national rankings or any other hype.
"Arkansas is familiar with the course, obviously, but it boils down to who runs the best and executes," Clark said. "On paper, it appears to be a three-team race (between Ark., Ga. and Tenn.), but someone else always shows up. In either case, it should be a close and exciting race."