Nov. 22, 2009
BY AUSTIN BAIRD
Despite finishing among the top 20 teams in the country, the Lady Vols did not receive a team-bid to participate in the championship.
"Of course I'm excited, but we wanted the other girls to be there with us, too," said Van Horn. "A lot of teams didn't expect that we were going to place as high as we did this year but it shows how much we improved along the way. I really wish we could have qualified as a team, but it didn't happen."
"The other girls are going to be there with us in spirit," Areson said. "I'm sure they'll get there too before their careers are over...but we'll run this race hard for them."
While a team bid to the championship would have been an ideal way to close out the season, Areson and Van Horn are still excited for the chance to run in the NCAA meet. Though now in similar positions, the two seniors took distinctly different paths to the championship race.
"Jackie has led the team the entire year, has run very tough and consistent, and received an automatic bid," UT head coach J.J. Clark said. "Katie is getting stronger every race and running better and better."
Though she participated in the NCAA Championship when the team received a bid in 2006, last year was the first time Areson received an individual-bid to the race.
It's what she considers one of her most memorable performances of her time at UT.
"I was counting the whole time [during the 2008 South Regional] because I knew our team was on the bubble and that if I did my best to qualify as an individual that it would help the team," Areson said. "I passed four individuals the last part of the race to make it and I was the very last spot to [get a bid to the NCAA Championship.]"
That race, and her performance at last year's championship when she finished 104th out of 252 runners, changed the way she prepared for this season and helped define the goals she set for herself during her senior campaign.
After realizing she could run with the elite NCAA runners, she set her top goal this season as being named an All-American, which wasn't even a thought in previous years.
While Areson is still poised for a shot at becoming an All-American, even if she doesn't, she'll be content knowing that she ran the best she could at the championship.
"I've just gotten by in a lot of ways in high school and early in college," Areson said. "I was talented enough to run good races, but now I want to do the best I can for myself and not regret any race.
"If I can look back and feel like I did that, no matter where I place, I'll be happy."
This season, for Van Horn, has been less about making a mark on the program by being named an All-American and more about personal redemption and recovery. She missed all of last season due to injuries and was forced to sit out this season's first race with the flu.
"I can remember sitting in my room at home with the flu and thinking, `I want to be out there,'" Van Horn said. "Feeling that way last year while I was recovering and again [with the flu] made me realize ... how soon it was going to be over. That feeling is a big part of the reason I'm so excited to be in the championship: it's one more chance to run."
Because the NCAA generally gives four at-large bids to each region, when Van Horn finished fifth at the South Regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala., two weeks ago, her immediate thought was that her cross country career was over.
"I didn't have any regrets. I ran a really tough race, put myself in position and ran the best I could," Van Horn said. "It was the best I could do that day...but I still didn't think I was going to make it in."
Like Areson in 2008, however, Van Horn was surprised to learn that she received the final at-large bid to participate in the championship. It will be her first time participating in the championship since 2006, when she ran with the team shortly after transferring from the University of Richmond.
With more than 200 of the best runners in the country at the race -- twice the amount of participants as regular season races -- the mindset needed to be successful in the championship is different.
"The competition is very stiff," Clark said. "Once you go through it, you understand what you have to prepare yourself for, and you do a better job of mentality readying yourself for the task that is about to come, which is to get to the finish line as fast as you can.
"Fortunately, [Areson and Van Horn] have both been there before...these two always give 100 percent and will represent our program well."