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. – When it comes to Southeastern Conference cross country, we’ve reached a critical point in the season, especially when it comes to postseason implications.
Beginning this weekend, each team’s competitions will begin counting towards the NCAA regional selection process. I will attempt to explain the rather complex NCAA regional process later in the column, but simply, how teams fare and who they beat becomes much more important beginning with this weekend.
Last Saturday, Vanderbilt played host to the Commodore Classic in a bit of a preview of the 2012 SEC Cross Country Championships, which will also take place at Percy Warner Park on Oct. 26. We learned several things from that meet, especially on the women’s side.
It was no surprise that the host Commodores took home the team title and placed four runners among the individual top seven, but a few new names emerged near the top of the results leaderboard on Saturday.
Ole Miss senior Katie Breathitt, a soccer player turned distance runner that I profiled in a story this summer, took home the individual title, clocking a time of 21:03.23, which goes down as the top women’s 6K time in the SEC this season. Breathitt was named the SEC Women’s Runner of the Week for her performance in Nashville. Coming in second was South Carolina freshman Kayla Lampe, who has proven through the course of two meets that she will be one of the league’s top female runners as just a rookie.
Still, it is a bit hard to gauge how the women’s team race will shake out from that meet. Vanderbilt was the coaches’ preseason pick to repeat as conference champions, but contenders Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M all competed in different meets this weekend, so we still didn’t get a look at head-to-head competition between the league’s leaders.
On the men’s side, Texas A&M senior Henry Lelei competed for the first time this season and did not disappoint. He won the Rice Invitational in a 6K time of 16:25.00. To put that in perspective, the next closest runner on the SEC’s 6K top times list, Aggie teammate Issac Spencer, is a full 22 seconds behind Lelei. Texas A&M checks in at an SEC-best No. 15 in this week’s U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll.
Speaking of that USTFCCCA poll, six SEC teams are ranked for the second consecutive week – three on the men’s side and three on the women’s side. Both Vanderbilt’s and Arkansas’ women’s programs check in among the nation’s top-10.
This past Friday as part of our championship duties, Tre Stallings, the SEC’s Assistant Director of Championships, and I ventured to Nashville to check out Percy Warner Park in advance of the SEC Championships.
We met with Vanderbilt head coach Steve Keith and meet director Steve Walsh, who both gave us a tour of the course. Percy Warner Park has undergone a number of facility upgrades in advance of the upcoming championships and it looks quite impressive. Among those improvements are two wide wooden bridges that help alleviate an issue the course previously faced with runner bottlenecking.
To get a better idea of what I’m describing, check out a photo gallery that Vanderbilt put together showing the upgrades and the two new bridges: http://www.vucommodores.com/view.gal?id=122892
Another observation of note is that Percy Warner Park is a “real” cross country course.
A number of the championships are now contested on modified golf courses which are, for the most part, relatively flat and on which runners have few elements with which to contend.
This is not the case with Vanderbilt’s course, which will challenge runners during the SEC Championships. In addition to the bridges, there are hills and inclines, slopes and natural terrain.
To be successful at the SEC Cross Country Championships, it will not only come down to who the fastest runners are, but who is best conditioned to deal with the elements and the inclines.
Vanderbilt has also done a great job of making the course spectator friendly. Those who come out to Nashville in late October will have an excellent view of the course and many opportunities to see the runners pass by the spectator areas.
For the true cross country fan, this event – especially at this facility – is a must see.
To attempt to explain the selection process for the NCAA Cross Country Championships is no easy task, but, with much help from USTFCCCA Communications Director Tom Lewis and a quick read of the NCAA manual, I hope to be able to make the process more understandable to you.
For the NCAA Cross Country Championships, which will take place Nov. 17 at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky., a total of 31 teams will compete on both the men’s and women’s sides. At each regional across the country, the top-two teams advance to the national championship. That makes a total of 18 teams (nine regions), while the remaining 13 advancing squads are at-large selections.
How do those at-large teams get selected for the national championships?
That’s a more complex answer.
A team’s finish at the regional meet is the primary criterion for selection as an at-large squad. From there, the teams from each region are placed under consideration by their regional finish. The next two non-automatic qualifying teams from each region are considered based on their wins against teams that have already qualified for the championships.
Those wins must come, this year, between Sept. 21 and the conclusion of the NCAA regional championships. Anything before that date is not countable toward the at-large selection process.
According to the NCAA manual, following the NCAA automatic qualifiers, the next at-large berth is awarded to the team with the highest “win total.” Following the selection of each at-large team, the win totals of all of 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.
Here’s an interesting twist to that selection process. What happens if the fourth-place team at a given regional is more qualified to advance to the NCAA Championships than the third-place team?
It is called the “push process” by the NCAA.
As they define it, this occurs if a team from a specific region (the third-place finisher) does not have enough wins to earn an at-large bid, but the team directly behind them in regional finish (the fourth-place team) 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.
Essentially, the fourth-place team pushes the third-place team into the NCAA Championships.
Here’s another twist in the process and I’ll try to simplify this as much as possible. A “win” counts only if it comes against what is termed an opponent’s “A” squad. An “A” team consists of four or more individuals who competed at the regional meet for that team. Therefore, a team during the regular season must beat a squad similar to what is run in regional competition in order for the “win” to count.
Each week during the season, the USTFCCCA releases regional rankings for cross country. How do these factor into the NCAA at-large selection process?
Technically, they don’t. But they are very helpful evaluations and projections for both NCAA at-large selection and future scheduling.
In the USTFCCCA poll, each region has a representative, who is charged with the task of evaluating his or her own region and organizing information from regional results that help place things in perspective.
While the USTFCCCA rankings for track and field are based on a mathematical formula, the cross country rankings are more subjective and at the discretion of the regional representative.
For the fans, the regional rankings should help them understand the significance of their team’s “wins” during the course of the year. For instance, if a team beats another team ranked in the top-two of the regional rankings, that likely means that, down the road, those will probably be wins against automatically qualified teams when it comes time for selection.
The other component is scheduling. Prior to each season, coaches attempt to put together a slate of meets that best positions them to garner those needed victories to make a strong at-large resume. The regional rankings help the coaches project the teams that they need to beat in order to have the best chance to advance to the national championships.
After the majority of SEC teams were in action last weekend, there are just a few meets involving league squads this coming weekend.
The Arkansas men, predicted to repeat as SEC Champions, will return to the course for the first time since Aug. 30 when they travel to the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational in Earlysville, Va. That meet will also feature Kentucky, which was idle last weekend. The Wildcats feature standout Luis Orta, who should have a chance to contend for the SEC individual championship. Finally, LSU plays host to the LSU Invitational in Baton Rouge this weekend.
What should you keep an eye on this weekend?
See how the Razorback men perform in Virginia this weekend and how their times compare to the current leaders in the SEC. Eric Fernandez returns to attempt to defend his SEC individual title this season and Solomon Haile captured Arkansas’ opening meet of the season. Could be a powerful 1-2 punch for the Razorbacks. Also, watch where Orta finishes in the men’s field and how he hangs with the top Arkansas runners. This could preview how he expects to fare at the SEC Championships.
Until next time.