By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
Preview | Championship Page
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Entering the 2012 cross country campaign, Chris Bucknam, head coach of the No. 9 Arkansas Razorbacks, was unsure what to expect from his team.
Yes, his squad has won two consecutive Southeastern Conference Championships and Arkansas has claimed 19 of the last 21 such titles. And the Razorbacks are returning the defending SEC individual champion Eric Fernandez. But there were a lot of unknowns heading into the season.
The team would be led by Fernandez and a pair of athletes who had not competed for the Razorbacks last season. Kemoy Campbell is a transfer from South Plains [Texas] College, making this debut for the Razorbacks, while Solomon Haile is a redshirt junior who, due to injury, hadn’t competed since 2010.
That left a lot of question marks for Bucknam.
“There was a lot of uncertainty entering the year,” he said. “The perfect scenario would have been to have a team full of athletes who had healthy productive track seasons the year before and catapulted that into cross country season. It’s been much different for us this year because of issues we’ve had but, to their credit, we’ve rebounded and gelled together. Our most important part of the season is in front of us.”
Fernandez currently ranks second in the SEC at the championship distance with a season-best 8K time of 23:36. Only Texas A&M’s Henry Lelei has logged a better 8K time this season than Fernandez.
The Ballwin, Mo., native looks to become the first Arkansas athlete to win back-to-back SEC individual cross country titles since Josphat Boit took home consecutive crowns in 2004 and 2005.
“Obviously, both the individual and team titles are two things that are really important to defend,” Fernandez said. “They are definitely up there on my list of goals. Going into the meet, I feel like our team is actually better than last year. We are all very fit and our talent level is off the charts. We have been killing the workouts, which is great. We are very confident in our ability to defend the team title. From an individual standpoint, I’d love to go two years in a row, but as long as our team gets on the podium, that’s all that matters. It’s exciting on all accounts.”
The pressure to defend the team title won’t rest solely on Fernandez’s shoulders this year.
In each of the squad’s three meets this season, a different top runner has emerged with Campbell, Fernandez and Haile sharing the distinction.
Together, they hold three of the SEC’s best four 8K times this season.
“We’re pleased to have those three talented guys up front,” Bucknam said. “They all have different strengths and weaknesses. My goal is to try to get them on the same page physically and mentally. I think there’s a lot of improvement that all three of them can continue to make. I can’t tell you which one of them is going to finish in what position, I just hope that they all have good races.”
In turn, the trio has helped drive the rest of the squad’s runners to achieve their potential. This paradigm was on full display in Arkansas’ fifth-place team finish at the highly competitive Wisconsin adidas Invitational two weeks ago.
“It gives our team a lot of confidence,” Bucknam said. “These guys want to support the big three up front, so to speak. I think that’s what happens, all the boats in the harbor rise simply because three good guys up front elevates the rest of the guys to perform well. That seemed to come into play at Wisconsin where that supporting cast of the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh guys were all trying to raise their level of performance to contribute.”
But it’s not just the remainder of the roster that the team’s top three are influencing. They also are making one another better as they train together.
“You need someone to push you always,” Haile said. “Having Eric and Kemoy run next to me is a privilege and gives you motivation to push each other. It is a good experience and gives you confidence as a team. It is way different than having only one person or not having anybody to push you. Having two more people who can be in front and really push each other really helps going into the race. It has been quite a good experience to have them to run together with.”
When Haile took to the course at the season-opening Razorback Invitational this past August, he hadn’t run in a cross country race since 2010. His performance said otherwise, as Haile captured the race in a time of 19:51.4. He currently holds the SEC’s third-best 8K time this season at 23:42.
“I definitely feel like I’m back in my original shape that I had before my injury,” Haile said by phone Tuesday. “It has been very exciting to come back after almost two years and be able to race again. I have been training hard and expecting the SEC and national meets.”
Campbell, the 2011 National Junior College Athletic Association cross country national champion, arrived in Fayetteville technically raw, but incredibly talented. He was the individual winner for Arkansas at the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational in late September and holds a season-best 8K time of 23:43, good for fourth among all SEC runners this season.
“Kemoy, coming out of junior college, was not used to our type of training,” Bucknam said. “He’s not used to being on a team such as ours and having the training load. It has all been new to him.”
Fernandez has been the mainstay on the team from a year ago and was an individual participant at last season’s NCAA Championships. He is excited about the potential, not just of the team’s elite three runners, but of the squad as a whole.
“I feel like this summer, just through what Coach Bucknam had me doing and talking to him, the general consensus was that if everyone does their part over the summer and does the best they can during the season, pretty much anything is possible,” Fernandez said. “I felt like the only unknown would be in the sense that was just ‘What can this team turn into if we all put our gears on 10?’”
The Razorbacks may get an answer to that question on Friday, when the men’s 8K SEC Championship race gets underway at 11 a.m. CT.
“The jury is still out, but I like where these guys have come and how hard they’ve worked,” Bucknam said. “It’s been a fun group to coach."