Nov. 11, 2009
By Eric Trainer, Associate Director of Media Relations
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- With the NCAA South Regional looming this weekend, it's "go-time" for the University of Tennessee cross country teams. The Lady Vols and Vols will be in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday, trying to extend their seasons by earning trips to the NCAA Championships.
The University of Alabama will serve as the host of the regional competition, which will feature a 10,000-meter men's race at 10 a.m. Central time and the women's 8,000-meter affair at 11:15 a.m. CT. The action will take place at the Harry Pritchett Running Park, a course the Big Orange squads are familiar with after running there on Sept. 18 in the Crimson Classic. The Vols were second and the Lady Vols third at that meet.
The top two finishing men's and women's teams from each of the nine regions will earn automatic berths to the NCAA meet in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 23. The NCAA also will extend 13 at-large invitations. Individually, the top four finishers not on automatic qualifying squads will earn bids. The UT women placed third in the South Region last season and were bypassed by the committee for an at-large berth. The Vols, meanwhile, placed fifth.
"To receive an automatic bid, there's actually no room for error," eighth-year UT Women's Head Coach J.J. Clark said. "We have to go out there and make some things happen. I'm always optimistic and always believe we can do it. I believe that, realistically, because we have great athletes on our team. We really just have to push through."
The Lady Vols enter the meet on the heels of a runner-up finish at the SEC Championships two weekends ago and are situated at 29th nationally and third regionally in the most recent United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Rankings. Clark must lead his troops against No. 3 Florida and No. 9 Florida State, the SEC and ACC champions, respectively, among others. The Seminoles and Gators finished one-two in the region last season and are again prohibitive favorites for the two auto bids.
"That's why you run the races," Clark said of the qualifying process. "If they automatically picked teams (for the NCAA meet) based on the rankings, then we wouldn't need to run the race. You run the race to see who is going to qualify, and I remain optimistic about what we're going to do and very confident in our team's abilities."
Clark's belief stems from the fact the Lady Vols have gained strength as the year has gone along. With his team bolstered by the All-SEC trio of senior Jackie Areson, junior Brittany Sheffey and senior Katie Van Horn all season, Clark inserted middle distance runners junior Chanelle Price and senior Phoebe Wright into the lineup four weekends ago at the Panorama Farms Invitational. That infusion provided an immediate spark at that meet and later propelled the Lady Vols to a second-place showing at SECs, where they finished ahead of then-No. 29 Arkansas and ascended into the USTFCCCA Poll themselves.
"Things are going well in regard to momentum and our runners coming into their own at the right time," Clark said. "At Panorama Farms, they grouped well. They didn't group great at the SEC meet, in terms of running together and feeling the flow together, but they ran well and adjusted according to the circumstances.
"Finishing second at the SEC meet after being preseason ranked third, I thought that we ran tough and maybe surprised a few people. Now we're just looking forward to the upcoming meet."
Areson, who finished third at the 2009 SEC Championships and has paced Tennessee in all five races this season, is a two-time All-South Region honoree, having finished 10th at the regional in 2006 and 11th in 2008. Van Horn also is a two-time All-South recipient, leading UT and placing eighth in 2006 and 11th in 2007 before redshirting a year ago. Sheffey, meanwhile, was 33rd as a freshman in 2007 before rising to All-South status in 2008 with a 23rd-place showing.
The Tennessee men also have had a clear-cut top three this season. Junior Michael Spooner has emerged as the team's most consistent leader, having paced the squad in three of his four races in 2009. Included in that mix was his 11th-place showing at the SEC Championships, where he garnered second-team All-SEC accolades for the second year in a row. He is joined in UT's up-front trio by junior Peter Sigilai and freshman Leoule Degfae. Sigilai has set the tone for UT in two of his four races and crossed the line 22nd at the league meet. Degfae, meanwhile, has run third for his club in four of five starts and earned SEC All-Freshman Team kudos for his 33rd-place effort at the SEC meet.
For the Vols to climb up the ladder at the regional meet, though, the three leaders must move closer to the front of the pack, and UT's No. 4 and No. 5 scorers have to close the gap. While it didn't happen at the SEC meet, Tennessee is capable of doing better at the regional competition in tightly packing its runners and keeping under 15th-year Big Orange Men's Head Coach George Watts' goal of a one-minute spread between its first and fifth runners.
"We have had two very good weeks of training, and we should have a much better outcome than our previous competition," Watts said. "We have prepared for the 10,000-meter distance all season and should be very confident in handling the extra 2K."
UT's spreads for 8K races until the SEC Championships had been 28.90 at the Crimson Classic, 38.10 at the Colonial Inter-Regional Challenge, 1:03.57 at the Greater Louisville Classic and 55.87 at the Panorama Farms Invitational. Attempting to trim a collective number of 1:29.19 from the conference meet will be a priority, and a quartet of runners will be called upon to try and make that happen.
Seniors Mike Brodsky and Chris Kane, junior Steve Fassino and sophomore Chris Bodary have taken turns holding down the final two scoring positions this season. At the SEC meet, Brodsky (34th) and Fassino (43rd) were the guys to occupy those spots, as they each scored for UT in SEC cross country competition for the first time in their careers.
Spooner returns as an all-region performer after placing 25th last season and running second for Tennessee. Beyond that, Bodary, Brodsky and Fassino are the only other Vols who have run at the regional meet, and only Fassino (5th UT/61st overall last season) has contributed to the scoring cause at this level.
That said, the squad from Rocky Top will have to contend with a difficult cadre of teams. Among the region foes are No. 6 Alabama, the SEC champion, No. 21 Florida State and No. 25 Auburn. UT enters as the sixth-ranked squad in the South, with conference opponents Florida and Georgia also positioned above the Vols after finishing ahead of them head-to-head at the league meet.
Watts, though, is hopeful that the team's training and its successful experience at the Harry Pritchett Running Park earlier this fall will translate into a strong, breakthrough performance on Saturday.
"We are familiar with the course and had a very nice race there back in September," Watts said. "Every time you toe the line there is an opportunity to do something special. We can be in the hunt this weekend."