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    SEC Course Chronicles: Week 9

    By: Sean Cartell
    Twitter: @SEC_Sean
    SEC Digital Network

    Editor’s Note: Course Chronicles will run each Wednesday on the SEC Digital Network during the SEC Cross Country season.

    BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – For six Southeastern Conference teams and 10 additional individuals, this week provides an opportunity for each of them to compete for national championships, as the 2012 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships take place this Saturday at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky.

    I will embark on Louisville this evening to watch our teams and student-athletes compete at this great event. Tonight, there will be a pre-championship banquet for each of the participating student-athletes, coaches and support staff as a precursor to the championship. On Friday, both a press conference and a coaches technical meeting at the course are scheduled before things get going on Saturday at 12 p.m. ET. A live Webcast of the NCAA Cross Country Championships will be available on NCAA.com.

    For more inside information on the work that goes into putting on an NCAA Cross Country Championship, I interviewed University of Louisville assistant athletics director Josh Heird yesterday for a Q&A that ran on our Web site with a great deal of interesting behind-the-scenes information. I encourage you to check out that Q&A if you haven’t already.

    Thirty-one teams compete on both the men’s and women’s sides and 38 individuals (39 on the men’s side due to an error that initially excluded Kentucky runner Luis Orta) in the meet. The Arkansas men and Georgia men qualified automatically for the meet, as did the Arkansas and Vanderbilt women, by virtue of finishing among the top-two teams at their respective regionals. The Florida and Georgia women both advanced with at-large berths, something I will discuss later in this column. The highly competitive South Region advanced four women’s teams to the NCAA Championships through something called the “push process.”

    The U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association released its final regular-season rankings on Tuesday and each of the six SEC teams that advanced to the NCAA Cross Country Championships are ranked among the top-30 nationally.

    On the men’s side, Arkansas is ranked No. 11 nationally, while Georgia checks in at No. 27. For the women, Arkansas is the nation’s 12th-ranked team, while Vanderbilt is No. 24, Georgia No. 28 and Florida No. 30.

    This all sets up for a great NCAA Championships and it will be exciting to see what the SEC teams accomplish. I will have full coverage from Louisville on SECDigitalNetwork.com and on my Twitter account @SEC_Sean.

    Coming Together

    Looking simply at the rankings this season and the past history, one might not be surprised to see the Arkansas women’s cross country team at the NCAA Championships. After all, it is the 25th all-time appearance for the Razorbacks and the 20th in the 23-year tenure of head coach Lance Harter.

    However, after having high hopes heading into the season, Harter may have felt more like he was working a jigsaw puzzle than tinkering with a lineup in August.

    “This summer, I was really, really excited about our potential,” Harter told me yesterday. “Then we had some issues with Stephanie Brown having a sore hip that needed a lot of rehab and there was a very, very time consuming mechanical issue that we had to change. So, here is one of our most talented athletes that’s not going to run this year. And then Dominique Scott was flying home [to Capetown, South Africa] and somehow hurt her leg in a 24-hour flight. She couldn’t get herself in a position to be comfortable and could barely walk off the plane. She tried to get as much therapy as she could. We had those two out of the lineup and it was just a matter of regrouping.”

    Slowly but surely, Harter began finding the right pieces and put them together in just the correct manner. Semehar Tesfaye, a two-time NCAA Cross Country participant, transferred to Arkansas for her senior season after having competed at Iowa State. The Razorbacks also added freshman Andrina Schlaepfer from Solothurn, Switzerland, who had been a three-time Swiss Cross Country Champion before moving to Fayetteville.

    Sophomore Grace Heymsfield had returned to the lineup after sitting out the previous season due to some intestinal issues that required surgery. Kaitlin Flattman, the 2011 SEC Freshman Runner of the Year, and Jessica [Jackson] Kamilos were returning from very strong freshman campaigns. Couple that with sophomores Paige Johnston and Diane Robison, and the Razorbacks have a very strong top-seven, along with a number of contributing cast members.  

    “All of those things started to come together,” Harter said. “We’ve been able to come together, we’ve been able to latch on to it and it’s just snowballed in a positive direction.”

    Arkansas, in Nashville in late October, was in position as one of the favorites to win the SEC Cross Country Championships for the first time since 2008 when Tesfaye went down in the middle of the race due to a breathing problem she experienced on meet day. With a few tweaks in practice the following week, Tesfaye came back strong to finish third at the NCAA South Central Regional in a 6K time of 20:54.4.

    “She just had a breathing problem and we can’t quite figure out if it’s allergy related,” Harter said. “We got back the next day and she felt fine. We kind of changed her racing style, tactically, and it really paid dividends in the regional.”

    According to Heymsfield, the Razorbacks are a determined group heading into the NCAA Championships on Saturday.

    “All of us are coming in with this mindset that we want to be a top-10 team at nationals,” she said. “It has just been a real group effort this season.”

    Push Process In Full Effect

    As I stated in last week’s column, I wouldn’t have been surprised if four women’s teams from the NCAA South Regional made the NCAA Championship field and that’s exactly what happened when the meet was contested last Friday in Tallahassee.

    Following the race, once the results were finalized, top-ranked and host Florida State had won the regional with Vanderbilt placing second to earn the other automatic-qualifying spot. Georgia was third and 2012 SEC Champion Florida placed fourth. When the championship field was announced, all four of those teams had qualified for the national meet.

    Here’s how that happened.

    Eighteen teams earn NCAA automatic-qualifying berths, as determined by the top-two team finishes at each of the nine regions. From there, according to the NCAA manual, the next at-large berth is awarded to the team with the highest “win” total. (For a complete analysis of this process, check out my week three column). Following the selection of each at-large team, the win totals of all the remaining regional teams still under consideration are adjusted to include victories of all the teams selected to nationals until the field includes 31 teams.

    Now, if a team from a specific region (the third-place finisher – in this case, Georgia) does not have enough wins to earn an at-large bid, but the team directly behind them in regional finish (the fourth-place finisher – in this case, Florida) does have enough wins to be the next at-large team selected, then both the third-place and fourth-place teams from that specific region earn at-large bids to the national meet. This is called the “push process.”

    This finish at the NCAA South Regional just shows how strong cross country is in the SEC. There is no question that each of those three teams – Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt – deserves to be in the field competing for a national title. On any given day, those team finishes could have likely played out in any order. It is this dynamic that makes the SEC Cross Country Championships one of the most competitive in all of collegiate cross country.

    Having four women’s teams from the SEC in the championship field only makes the NCAA Championships that much stronger.

    Georgia On Our Mind

    Former Georgia letterwinner Patrick Cunniff, a 1991 UGA graduate who competed for the Bulldogs from 1988-91, was brought in to lead the distance program at his alma mater prior to the start of the 2012 season following the departure of Jeff Pigg, who was named the head coach at the University of North Florida.

    In just his first season, Cunniff has helped the Bulldogs accomplish something that has happened just one other time in program history. Both the men’s and women’s teams are competing at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in the same year for just the second time in school history, joining the 2004 squads.

    What Cunniff has done, especially with the men’s program, has been very impressive. Georgia placed second at the SEC Championships, finishing ahead of both Texas A&M and Missouri, which tied for the best finish in program history.

    At the NCAA South Regional, the Bulldog men posted their best score in school history (48 points) at the regional competition and six Georgia student-athletes earned All-Region honors. All five scorers for the Bulldogs placed among the top 15 in the South Regional.

    “To have six All-Region runners and all five scorers in the top 15 shows how tight and how strong this team actually is,” Cunniff said in a press release following last Saturday’s regional championships.

    The Georgia men will be making their fourth all-time appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and second consecutive, following an SEC-best 29th-place showing at last season’s national meet. The Bulldogs’ best-ever finish at the NCAA Championships was 25th in 2004.

    Quick Notes
    •    The SEC has won eight NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships, with Arkansas claiming seven and Tennessee winning one. The last SEC NCAA Championship came in 2000, with Arkansas winning its third consecutive.  
    •    The SEC has won one NCAA Women’s Cross Country Championship, with Kentucky holding the only title, which the Wildcats won in 1988.
    •    The SEC boasts two NCAA Cross Country individual titles, as Godfrey Siamusiye of Arkansas won back-to-back national crowns in 1995 and 1996.
    •    No SEC woman has ever claimed an NCAA Cross Country individual championship. Four SEC women have finished as the NCAA runner-up: Shelly Steely, Florida (1984); Valerie McGovern, Kentucky (1989); Deena Drossin, Arkansas (1992) and Amy Yoder, Arkansas (1999).
    •    The Arkansas men are making their 42nd all-time appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and first since 2010. The Razorbacks have claimed seven NCAA Men’s Cross Country national championships in their program’s history.
    •    The Georgia men are making their fourth all-time appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and second consecutive. The Bulldogs’ highest-ever finish at the NCAA Championships is 25th, achieved in both 2003 and 2004.
    •    The Arkansas women are making their 25th all-time appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and second consecutive. The Razorbacks will now have 20 NCAA Championship appearances in head coach Lance Harter’s 23-year tenure. Arkansas’ highest-ever finish at the NCAA Championships was second, on four occasions (1991, 1992, 1993, 1999).
    •    The Florida women are making their 12th all-time appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and sixth in the last seven years. The Gators’ highest-ever finish of seventh came in 2009.
    •    The Georgia women are making their seventh all-time trip to the NCAA Championships and first since the 2007 campaign. The best-ever showing for the Bulldogs came in 1990, as Georgia finished ninth.
    •    The Vanderbilt women are making their second all-time NCAA Championship appearance after a sixth-place showing last season.
    •    The 2012 campaign marks just the second time in program history that both the Georgia men’s and women’s teams are appearing at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in the same year, joining the 2004 squads.
    •    Ole Miss senior Katie Breathitt, who qualified individually for the NCAA Cross Country Championships, becomes the first woman in Ole Miss cross country history ever to advance to the national meet.
    •    Tennessee sophomore Peter Okwera is the first Tennessee men’s runner to advance to the NCAA Championships since Michael Spooner in 2010.
    •    Kentucky women’s runners Cally Macumber, the 2012 SEC Champion, and Chelsea Oswald will be the first Wildcats to compete in the NCAA Cross Country Championships since Kentucky qualified as a team in 2008. They are the first individual qualifiers for the Wildcats since Allison Grace in 2005.
    •    Missouri’s Max Storms becomes the first Tiger male to qualify individually for the NCAA Cross Country Championships since Garett Jeffries did so in 2008.

    Until next time.