Nov. 19, 2004
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- J.J. Clark has led the University of Tennessee women's cross country team to the NCAA Championships in each of his three seasons as head coach. As he takes his 2004 Lady Vols to Terre Haute, Ind., for Monday's 11 a.m. Eastern time national meet, the three-time regional coach of the year is expecting his 14th-ranked squad to take another big step for one of the nation's fastest-rising distance programs.
"Our mentality is that we expect to advance to the NCAA Championships," Clark said. "Now the idea is to see how close to the top ten we can come. If we finish in the top 15, we've had a solid year. If we break into the top 10, it will be extraordinary for this program. We have the personnel to do it; we just have to put it all together on race day."
UT enters the 31-team, 6,000-meter race at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course with the 14th-ranked team in the land and a school-best 111-5 overall record. The Big Orange women will be attempting to improve on finishes of 28th in 2002 and 24th a season ago as the Lady Vols appear in a national meet three years in a row for the first time in school history.
There is evidence to support that Clark's club is capable of advancing its cause at this year's NCAA gathering. The most tangible evidence is the Lady Vols' sixth-place finish at the Oct. 16 ISU Pre-Nationals "White" race, which was run on the national championship course against 36 of the country's best teams. A combined tally of the "Blue" and "White" races, which included nearly all of Monday's NCAA teams, revealed Tennessee finishing in 11th place out of those 70-odd schools.
Also meriting strong consideration is the intangible aspect of the team's experience. With the squad making its third-straight NCAA showing, including a trip to the 2002 meet held in Terre Haute, Tennessee has been in this position before. Seven of the eight athletes traveling to Indiana have participated in a national meet, including seniors Brooke Novak (Kaukauna, Wis.) and Elizabeth McCalley (Knoxville, Tenn.) and junior Megan Cauble (Knoxville, Tenn.), who each have two NCAA meets under their belts.
"Having been to the past two NCAA meets definitely gives our athletes a feel for what to expect and gets them used to competing in a big field of runners," Clark said. "We also went to the Pre-NCAA meet this year for the first time since I've been at Tennessee, and that was a good dry run for what will occur at the NCAA meet."
The key now for the team's skipper, who has won SEC Coach of the Year kudos two years running, is to make sure his talented charges are all performing at peak on the same day. They have run well enough to win, as evidenced by the fact that UT has SEC and NCAA South Region titles to its credit. The victories, however, have been by narrower margins than Clark had hoped. While three of his charges garnered All-SEC status and a school-best five runners wound up with NCAA All-South Region recognition, he knows that for UT to accomplish its goals in Terre Haute, all five scorers will have to perform at their absolute best on Monday.
"When you put five in the top 25 at regionals, it obviously means you are doing something right," Clark said. "We're excited to have that kind of quality, and you must have that type of team in order to compete at the NCAA meet. We have yet to have a race where Brooke and Felicia (Guliford) both ran well on the same day. I am looking forward to that combination on Monday morning and seeing everyone perform at the best of their abilities."
Novak, who will run in her final collegiate cross country meet at NCAAs, has led her team to the finish line three times this season and nine times in her career. Guliford (Gallup, N.M.) also has three stints this season of being the standard-bearer for the Big Orange and has been a big addition to this year's team as a sophomore after redshirting in 2003.
McCalley, Cauble and sophomore Katie Flaute (Dayton, Ohio) have been very dependable scorers in 2004, with McCalley elevating herself to the team's number-two runner the past two meets. Juniors Mindy Sullivan (Lubbock, Texas) and Carly Matthews (Winston-Salem, N.C.) have also come through with key contributions during the past two seasons, and senior middle distance ace Nicole Cook (Petersburg, Va.) continues to capably fill whatever role becomes necessary for her.
Those examples of perseverance and team work have taken UT far in 2004 and might enable the Lady Vols to take another big step up the national ladder on Monday.