Nov. 10, 2005
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The path to Terre Haute, Ind., and the 2005 NCAA Cross Country Championships goes through Gainesville, Fla., Saturday morning. Head Coach J.J. Clark will lead his 15th-ranked Tennessee squad back to his old stomping grounds, where the Lady Vols will attempt to claim victory at the NCAA South Regional for the fourth year in a row and notch their fourth straight trip to the national championship meet.
Clark, who coached the Lady Gator cross country team for 10 seasons and was assistant track coach at the University of Florida from 1992 to 2002, will put his UT squad's 99-5 won-lost record on the line at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the UF Golf Course. The Lady Vols, who won a Southeastern Conference title in Gainesville in 1990 and took third on the 6K layout at the 2002 SEC meet in Clark's first season in Knoxville, will be the only ranked school competing but will face a challenge from 2004 NCAA South runner-up Georgia and 2002 and 2003 regional second-place finisher Florida State among others.
"Georgia was third in our conference this year, so they have a pretty good team," Clark said. "We have to mind our Ps and Qs to accomplish our task. We'll have some other teams and some individuals to worry about that can affect the team score, so we're going to go there very focused and not take anything lightly."
"You have to finish in the top two at regionals to get to nationals, and that's my primary concern," Clark said. "We always try to win and run our best. We're capable of winning, and I believe we have the best team. We just have to make sure that the way it looks on paper is what happens in reality."
Speaking of turning predictions into actions, Tennessee is coming off its finest performance of the season on Oct. 29 in Columbia, S.C., when all eight Big Orange participants recorded career-best times for 6,000 meters at the SEC Championships. As a result, the preseason favorite Lady Vols packed four of their five scoring runners among the top 11 finishers, tallying 48 points to hold off Arkansas by three and win their third straight conference meet.
Junior Felicia Guliford set the tone for Tennessee, covering the Hilton Field Course at Fort Jackson Military Base in 19 minutes, 46.23 seconds. The Gallup, N.M., product was joined in the scoring five by freshman Sarah Bowman (Warrenton, Va.), who was sixth; junior Katie Flaute (Dayton, Ohio), who was eighth; freshman Leah Soro (Knoxville, Tenn.), who was 11th; and senior Carly Matthews (Winston-Salem, N.C.), who was 21st. Guliford, Bowman, Flaute and Soro all earned All-SEC acclaim by virtue of their top-14 individual finishes.
With a national championship berth on the line Saturday, that same five will need to be ready to run well again when the starting gun sounds in Gainesville. Senior Mindy Sullivan (Lubbock, Texas) and freshmen Rolanda Bell (Laurelton, N.Y.) and Kimarra McDonald (Lumberton, N.J.) must also rise to the occasion and be prepared to step in should anyone in that quintet falter.
Clark, who this season became UT's all-time winningest cross country coach, said the meet being in Gainesville doesn't necessarily offer him any extra insight on how to attack the course, nor does it provide time for any sort of homecoming plans for him.
"The course is a totally different course from when I was there," Clark said. "They had a multi-million dollar renovation that changed the layout. I think the team that executes best is going to win, regardless of being familiar with the course.
"What I look forward to year after year is making sure we're poised and focused to run our best. Going to Gainesville is nice. If the race were in Gainesville or Alabama, it wouldn't matter to me as long as we advance to the NCAA meet."
A year ago, Tennessee earned a ticket to the national gathering when it got NCAA All-South Region performances from a program-best five runners, as the Big Orange edged Georgia, 78-80, and won the 23-team competition in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Guliford (14th) and Flaute (21st) are the only two of that standout group set to run this weekend, while Matthews (32nd) and Sullivan (37th) will attempt to improve their finishes from last season and earn accolades of their own.
That foursome, combined with the four freshmen, will be trying to gain Tennessee its ninth NCAA berth and its 12th national championship meet appearance overall, including three at the AIAW level. UT's previous NCAA trips came in 1982, 1983, 1989, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Team Orange made the AIAW field in 1977, 1979 and 1980.