Nov. 22, 2002
For the first time since 1998 and only the sixth time in school history, the University of Tennessee women's cross country team will compete in the NCAA Championship race. The Lady Vols, under the direction of first-year Head Coach J.J. Clark, are among a list of 31 schools that will vie for a national title Monday at the LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Ind.
UT, which qualified automatically for the event by winning the NCAA South Regional on Nov. 16 at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville, Tenn., will run on the 6,000-meter home course of Indiana State University at noon on Monday. In the field of teams, the Big Orange will see SEC foe No. 8 Arkansas as well as six other schools Clark's squad ran against during the 2002 campaign. Top-ranked Brigham Young, No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 Colorado are considered the favorites.
Tennessee enters the meet receiving a season-high 35 points in the FinishLynx/NCAA Division I Women's Cross Country Poll to rate one spot outside the nation's top 30. Clark's goal since the beginning of the season has been to qualify for the meet and pilot his team toward a top-20 finish. That accomplishment would seem to be a reach if freshman Felicia Guliford is unable to go after suffering severe hip pain following last weekend's regional meet. The Gallup, N.M., product was on crutches early in the week to keep pressure off the injury but has progressed to the point where she will make the trip.
"It's exciting to be going to the NCAA Championships, because this is what we've worked so hard for all season long," Clark said. "We earned this trip through our performance, so we want to go there and run competitively with the top teams in the country.
"We will still run hard regardless of whether Felicia is able to go. If she can't go, we will obviously miss her greatly. Everyone else will just have to give it their best, and we'll let the chips fall where they may."
The modus operandi of the 2002 edition has been for someone different to step into the gap each week and pick up the slack. That kind of team chemistry can be attributed to the expectations Clark has for the squad as well as the example senior leader Sharon Dickie sets.
"It's good to have the kind of leadership that Sharon provides," Clark said. "She knows what needs to be done and gets everyone on the same page. She's a team player who gets others involved, and that attitude has rubbed off on the rest of the team. I have seen Brooke Novak respond to that, and she will benefit from it not only on Monday but next year as well."
All Dickie has done throughout her career is get things done. She enters the NCAA gathering with a streak of 18 consecutive races where she has been Tennessee's top finisher, dating back to the national championship meet of her freshman year on Nov. 23, 1998. As a senior, the Grand Blanc, Mich., native has led her squad to four team victories and a 57-7 record, not to mention the regional title and NCAA appearance.
For her efforts, and for persevering through a career fraught with injuries, Dickie has accomplished several Lady Vol cross country firsts. This season, she became the school's only four-time All-SEC performer, the only four-time All-South Region selection and the sole four-time NCAA Championships qualifier. She could add to the awards cache on Monday by earning All-America distinction for the second time and joining a list of only two others at UT to be honored more than once.
Joining Guliford and Dickie on the trip to Indiana will be juniors Erin Anderson (Kent, Ohio), Christy Baird (Knoxville, Tenn.) and Jessica Southers (Ashland, Ky.), sophomores Elizabeth McCalley (Knoxville, Tenn.) and Brooke Novak (Kaukauna, Wis.) and freshman Megan Cauble (Knoxville, Tenn.). Only seven people can race, so someone will serve as the alternate come race day.
A week ago, Novak and Cauble joined Dickie (second) and Guliford (14th) on the All-South Region team with fourth and 20th-place finishes. Both also ran strong at the SEC meet, with Novak earning all-conference for the second-straight season and Cauble posting the best race of her young career to score third for Tennessee.
While the previously mentioned quartet usually occupies the one through four slots, the number five position has been by committee. Southers came through at the region meet with a 36th-place effort and scored in the fifth spot for UT at the PSU National Invitational. Anderson, meanwhile, has been the fifth orange-clad runner to cross the line at three meets, while McCalley contributed to the scoring cause at two meets, including fifth at the Tennessee Invitational. Baird has run in only one meet this season while working her way back into shape after an injury, but she is capable of filling that role as well.
Clark will need all hands on deck for this assignment. Though the meet is one of great magnitude, the first-year skipper is trying to keep things simple. He appears to be pleased with the way his charges are approaching the task at hand.
"Even though the field is larger in this meet, the concept is the same we've had all year long," Clark said. "Get out early to avoid getting caught in the back and keep our group as close together as possible. I've liked what I've seen in the last couple days of practice."