By Mark Maloney
SEC Digital Network
2011 SEC Cross Country Championships Coverage
MARYVILLE, Tenn. – Something unfolded Monday in the Southeastern Conference Cross Country Championships that have never happened before.
Vanderbilt took home a first-place trophy.
Vandy’s women, with five runners placing among the top nine overall, were dominant with 30 points at Lambert Acres Golf Course. Runner-up Arkansas more than doubled that with 61, a point ahead of defending champion Florida.
“It’s an older group. Mature. Probably a little sprinkling of youth and maturity,” said Steve Keith, coach of the Commodores. “The … seniors have really tied together and really focused on this exact goal today.”
Alexa Rogers, a senior from Littleton, Colo., led Vandy’s charge. She finished second to Arkansas senior Kristen Gillespie. Both beat the course record, Gillespie covering the 6,000 meters in 20:19.84, Rogers in 20:22.72.
“It was really good,” Rogers said of her race. “It wasn’t me, though. It was the team. We had a goal of winning SECs and trying to make it to nationals since the beginning, and we all held each other accountable and we all did it together.”
Vandy then came with sophomore Liz Anderson in fourth, then a 7-8-9 flurry in junior Jordan White, senior Louise Hannallah and junior Kristen Smith.
“I never imagined that we’d score so low,” Keith said. “But I’d never put anything past these girls because when they get their minds set to it, they can do it.”
What had he imagined?
“I thought we could score in the mid-forties, and I still thought that might be good enough to win. Maybe five in the top 15 rather than five in the top 10.
“But we had a plan of really being patient. We realized that the team that stayed together the longest was going to be the winner. This course is really tough and it’s a real race of attrition, so if we could keep our group together the longest, then that was going to be it. They executed perfectly. We waited until about 3K – top of the hill, two miles – and we knew the race would start to stretch out there.”
And so it did.
Arkansas’ Gillespie followed a similar plan. She said she preferred to not set the early pace, but wanted to make sure the tempo was good.
“It went out at an honest pace and I ended up in front kind of early, but that’s OK,” she said. “I just made sure I was comfortable, and then when people started making moves, I was ready to go.”
Rogers and the rest of Vandy’s ladies in black were close behind, showing no signs of pressure from their No. 3 ranking.
“We made it a point that this (race) isn’t any different,” Rogers said. “No matter where you run, you’re always going to be a target for the girl behind you, so just keep treating it like any other race and go out there and do what you need to do.
“We haven’t (won the SEC) before. But we knew we could as long as we stay confident, humble and trusting each other and helping each other.”
For Keith, a 1981 Vandy graduate who is in his sixth season as head coach, he hopes this is the start of something bigger. After his first five runners Monday came three freshmen – Grace Orders in 18th place, Amira Joseph in 21st and Rebecca Chandler in 29th.
“I don’t want to ever have to rebuild,” he said. “I just kind of want to reload. Bring in some youth, let them develop and keep doing the same thing.”