By: Sean Cartell
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. – As any good track and field enthusiast knows, the sport never really has an off-season. That is especially true in Olympic years, where it headlines the world’s highest stage as a fan-favorite event.
But for Southeastern Conference track and field fans, there has been a bit of a lull since league athletes competed at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, in mid-June.
Fortunately, things are back in full gear as SEC teams kicked off their cross country seasons this past weekend at locations across the country. League squads were at 10 different meets this past weekend and all had considerable success at their respective events.
Still, it’s hard to tell anything this early in the season. Squads are running a plethora of different distances in their early-season meets, competing in events that best suit their particular training plans. Cross country, like track and field, tends to be a championship-oriented sport, meaning that the regular seasons are, in large part, preparation for the post-season at both the conference and national levels.
At this point, athletes are still putting in heavy mileage in their training routines and are less rested for competition than they will be later in the season. Coaches are still tinkering with lineups, experimenting with newcomers and finding out which athletes will make their rosters for the upcoming SEC Championships, which will be held Oct. 26 in Nashville.
When the preseason national rankings were released by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, a combined five SEC men’s and women’s teams were ranked nationally. The poll will next be updated on Sept. 10, so we will then see what impact these early-season meets have had on the national rankings.
Even though it would be quite hard to make any definitive observations about SEC teams or athletes at this point, several noteworthy things stand out about this past weekend’s performances that are worth discussing.
In addition to my duties as a writer for the SEC Digital Network, I also serve as the SEC’s media relations contact for the sport of cross country. That means, among other things, I head up the Cross Country Athlete of the Week program for the sport.
It’s not an easy task to select the top athlete in four different categories, especially with the strength of this conference. It’s also more difficult earlier in the season when athletes are running a variety of different distances. Because of this discrepancy in distances, sometimes I am faced with the challenge of having to compare apples to oranges and come away with a decision. Still, it is a highly rewarding process to see our league’s deserving athletes earn the recognition they deserve.
I will rarely discuss in this column the decisions that went into selecting a particular athlete for any weekly honor. I don’t feel that in most cases it is appropriate.
However, in one particular case this week, I will make an exception because it allows me to discuss one exemplary young athlete from Texas A&M.
Weston O’Donnell, a redshirt freshman from Cedar Park, Texas, was this week’s selection for SEC Men’s Freshman Runner of the Week. You might look at his stat line and think that it’s unusual for an athlete who placed 16th overall in a race to earn a weekly honor. You would be right.
One of the several considerations the SEC looks at when deciding weekly honors has to do with the role that individual played in helping his team be successful and achieve victory. That couldn’t be truer than in the case of O’Donnell.
At the Baylor Twilight Invitational in Waco, Texas, this past Friday, O’Donnell was his team’s fifth finisher. It just so happened that the race came down to the fifth spot. His time of 19:39.2 bettered the fifth Baylor runner by 0.4 of a second to secure the team win 37-38 for the Aggies. The two squads were in a deadlock at 24-all before O’Donnell crossed the finish line to secure the win.
And, oh by the way, O’Donnell also holds the top freshman 6K time in the SEC this season.
Sure, one performance in the opening meet of the season isn’t necessarily indicative of future success. But, what O’Donnell showed this past weekend in his first collegiate meet was the ability to finish in a tight situation and not crumble under the pressure of leading his team in the most critical of moments.
This ability will serve him well in the rigors of the SEC. He should be fun to watch over the next four years if that first meet was any indication.
Speaking of young athletes, the SEC is loaded with talented underclassmen on the women’s side. Some of the league’s top female athletes are either freshmen or sophomores and that makes for an even brighter future for the sport.
The SEC Women’s Runner of the Week this week was a freshman, Julie Macdeo, of Florida. A three-time state cross country champion from Delaware, Macedo won her first-ever race in a UF uniform, capturing the two-mile Western Carolina Invitational in a time of 11:14.4.
And did you know – the last Florida freshman to win her first collegiate race was Genevieve LaCaze? Yes, she of Australian Olympic fame and collegiate steeplechase prowess. Those are certainly great footsteps to follow in.
But more importantly, it shows that Florida, which has won two of the last three SEC women’s cross country titles just continues to reload, even with the loss of now-professional Charlotte Browning and LaCaze over the past two seasons.
Few coaches have demonstrated sustained excellence like Arkansas women’s coach Lance Harter. Harter, who has led the Razorbacks since the 1990 campaign, has consistently filled his roster with elite athletes regardless of who he has lost to graduation the season before.
Last season, Arkansas was anchored by 2011 SEC Champion Kristen Gillespie, but received valuable contributions from rookie Jessica Jackson, 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year Kaitlin Flattmann and fellow freshman Dominique Scott.
This year, the majority of Harter’s team consists of freshmen and sophomores, but that’s no reason to count the Razorbacks out. Those three aforementioned athletes – now sophomores, along with others, gained the valuable experience necessary to lead Arkansas.
In the team’s season-opening dual meet against Missouri Southern, Arkansas was led by sophomore Diane Robison, who also was competing in her first collegiate meet. Robison clocked a time of 14:39.5 over the 4K course to win the race and lead a sweep of the top-four places for the Razorbacks. She also helped her team claim the victory.
Arkansas is currently ranked No. 11 in the latest USTFCCCA poll.
It’s quite a light schedule of competition on the docket this week for SEC Cross Country. The majority of teams are stepping away from the course to focus on training and prepare for meets the weekend of Sept. 14.
The only squads that will be in action this weekend are Auburn and the Arkansas women. The Tigers play host to the Auburn Invitational on Friday at their home course, while the Razorbacks head west to the UCI Invitational in Irvine, Calif.
In two weeks, seven of the league’s teams will be participating in the Commodore Classic at Percy Warner Park in Nashville. That is the same course that will play host to the SEC Championships in late October and it will be a good opportunity for teams to get a good feel of the course prior to the pressure-filled championship situation.
That will also be our first good look at what we can expect from SEC teams heading into the postseason, as half the conference schools will square off against one another and see where they stand with a month-and-a-half until they compete for the league crown.
I will be back next week with my observations on the light week of SEC Cross Country and a look ahead to the busy weekend following that. Until next time.