Nov. 19, 2005
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The 15th-ranked Lady Vol cross country team is aiming to do something it hasn't done since 1990. As J.J. Clark takes his fourth edition to Monday's NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., the Tennessee women will be trying to post their first top-15 national finish in 15 years.
UT, which has a school-best 122-5 record this season and a third straight Southeastern Conference championship to its credit, earned its fourth consecutive ticket and 12th overall pass to a national meet by winning its fourth NCAA South Regional in a row. Clark and company, however, want to take that success a step further this season after dissatisfying, though improving, finishes of 28th, 24th and 21st in his first three years at the helm.
"It's our fourth year in a row going to the NCAA meet, so it's good that we are being consistent," Clark said. "I want to go there with the mind set of competing at our very best -- nothing more, nothing less. I want them to run with their hearts and to go out there and really give a good effort.
"It's very difficult to predict where that would land us, because you don't know what other teams are going to do. I do know that if Felicia goes out there and runs her best and everyone is within 50 seconds or a minute of her, that's a good day for us. If they do that, I would predict we could be anywhere in the top 10 to 15 teams."
Tennessee will be making its fourth trip to Terre Haute's 6,000-meter LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, following NCAA appearances there in 2002 and 2004 and a trip to the pre-NCAA meet a year ago. As Clark prepares his group to compete in the race at 1:15 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, he stresses just how important it is for his runners to prepare themselves mentally for the 31-team, 255-runner field.
"I don't think any race you can run in nationally can really prepare you for this meet -- even the pre-NCAA meet. There's no race in the country, besides this one, where you are going to have the top 30+ teams in the same race, so you just have to prepare yourself psychologically to be in a barn-burner race and stay focused on your goals. That's all you can do.
"I've been to pre-NCAAs and to other meets, and the difference in performance at the NCAA meet is minimal. Just psychologically believing you are ready to compete at that level is the best preparation you can do."
The Lady Vols will travel seven athletes to the NCAA meet, and four of them have prior experience in the national championship race. UT's top returnee from a year ago is junior Felicia Guliford, who was the team's top finisher at the 2004 NCAA meet and was 81st overall in her second trip to the big show. The product of Gallup, N.M., has paced Team Orange in its past two races, finishing second and fifth, respectively, at the SEC and NCAA South meets to garner all-league and all-region distinction for the second time in her career.
Guliford's classmate, Katie Flaute, was Tennessee's third scorer last season with a 97th-place outcome in her second NCAA meet. The Dayton, Ohio, native has enjoyed her finest collegiate season in 2005, charting career bests at three different distances and repeating as an All-SEC and All-South Region performer after placing eighth and 12th, respectively, at those meets.
Seniors Carly Matthews (Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Mindy Sullivan (Lubbock, Texas) also bring NCAA experience to the table for the Orange and White. Matthews, who last weekend claimed all-region accolades for a 15th-place effort at the NCAA South meet, has consistently provided UT a dependable fourth or fifth scorer during the current campaign. She was 169th at the 2004 NCAA meet and will most assuredly find herself much closer toward the front of the pack in her second trip to Terre Haute.
Like Guliford and Flaute, Sullivan is making her third NCAA appearance, having been UT's sixth finisher in each of her first two national excursions. After aiding the scoring cause as the squad's fifth scorer in her first three meets this season, Sullivan has not been among the point-getters the past three races. The 2003 All-SEC performer, however, can draw from her previous experiences at this meet and could yet play a role in the team's championship season fortunes.
Making their NCAA debuts Monday afternoon will be freshmen Rolanda Bell (Laurelton, N.Y.), Sarah Bowman (Warrenton, Va.) and Leah Soro (Knoxville, Tenn.). Bowman and Soro were instrumental in Tennessee's victories at the SEC and NCAA Regionals, with each playing scoring roles in those ventures. Bowman was Team Orange's second and fifth scorer at those meets, respectively, earning all-league kudos for an 11th-place showing at the conference meet.
Soro, meanwhile, made both the All-SEC and All-South squads by finishing 11th and ninth overall at those events and crossing the line as UT's fourth and second counter at those meets. Bell, who most races holds down the six spot, has not yet produced points, but she has exhibited improvement throughout the season and is moving closer toward becoming a scoring factor for the Lady Vols.
Clark is leading his ninth team to an NCAA cross country meet. In addition to UT's four trips, the 14th-year coach directed Florida to five appearances during his 10-year stint in Gainesville. He enters the meet with a 401-95-1 record at Tennessee, ranking him as the most successful coach in Lady Vol cross country history.