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. – It’s time for NCAA regional action in the cross country world this week and Southeastern Conference teams will be out in full force, looking to secure their bids to the national championships.
After exactly two weeks away from competition since the SEC Championships in Nashville, Tenn., the 14 programs of the SEC will be spread out among four different regional sites all competing for the opportunity to earn team and individual berths at the NCAA Championships, to be contested Nov. 17 in Louisville, Ky.
To see where each of the SEC teams will be competing, check out the list below:
NCAA South Regional (Tallahassee, Fla.)
NCAA South Central Regional (Fayetteville, Ark.)
NCAA Southeast Regional (Charlotte, N.C.)
NCAA Midwest Regional (Springfield, Mo.)
So, we know the goal is to advance to the NCAA Championships, but how exactly does a team do that?
It’s not the simplest answer. I covered that topic in a column earlier this season, so for a full explanation, be sure to check out my week three column here.
In my best attempt at brevity, here is the simplified version of that process. A total of 31 teams will compete on both the men’s and women’s sides at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. There are nine regionals that will be contested this weekend. The top-two teams on both the men’s and women’s sides will automatically advance to the NCAA Championships. That makes a total of 18 teams; the remaining 13 advancing squads are at-large selections.
Given the competition we saw at the SEC Championships a couple of weeks ago, I think the league has a good chance at getting a number of teams in the NCAA Championships. Arkansas, which is the top-ranked SEC team on both the men’s and women’s sides, is playing host to the NCAA South Central Regional on Friday for the first time since 2007.
Speaking of rankings, according to the latest poll from the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, released on Oct. 30, the SEC has five ranked teams. Three men’s squads are ranked, led by No. 10 Arkansas. Georgia checks in at No. 26, while Texas A&M is tied for 29th overall. Missouri also is receiving votes on the men’s side. The Razorback women are ranked No. 12, while Florida is rated No. 14. Vanderbilt also is receiving votes on the women’s side.
What We’ve Learned
The 2012 SEC Cross Country Championships, which were historic in that they marked the first-ever SEC Championships in any sport to feature Missouri and Texas A&M, proved the increased competitiveness of the conference’s new dynamic.
The men’s title came down to what I thought it would prior to the championships. The fact was that if Arkansas could place its top-three runners of Kemoy Campbell, Eric Fernandez and Solomon Haile in the top four, the Razorbacks would be tough to beat. That’s exactly what they did, but head coach Chris Bucknam told me just impressive were his next three runners, who helped solidify the victory. If Arkansas is able to repeat this Friday what it did in Nashville, the Razorbacks should easily punch their tickets to the NCAA Championships, something that didn’t happen in 2011.
The Georgia men have been ranked among the nation’s top-30 throughout the season, but we hadn’t seen a standout performance on a big stage for the Bulldogs until the SEC meet. That’s when Georgia proved its strength and abilities, tying for a program-best second-place finish. Senior Matt Cleaver placed fifth overall and four other Bulldogs placed within the top-20. Georgia is looking to make its second consecutive appearance at the NCAA Championships, where it placed 29th last season.
Missouri and Texas A&M both finished tied for third at the meet and solidified their places among the conference leaders. A determined Henry Lelei won the individual SEC men’s title and, coupled with his abilities, his confidence appears to be off the charts right now. The Aggies were disappointed with their team finish at the SEC Championships, but I would expect them to get a berth to the NCAA Championships, coming from a region that will likely get three teams in the NCAA field. Missouri is a squad that I believe could surprise some people in NCAA regional competition. The Tigers have been among the nation’s top 40 all season long and performed very well at the SEC Championships.
The Florida women claimed their third SEC cross country championship in the last four years and were somewhat of a surprise winner two weeks ago. The Gators have been directed by first-year distance coach Paul Spangler, the 2012 SEC Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year, and Spangler has brought some new techniques and tactics to Florida’s team, which I will profile later in this column. Each of Florida’s five scorers at the league championships finished in the top-25 and Florence Ngetich was the individual runner-up. After narrowly missing the NCAA Championships a year ago, the Gators have a strong shot to return this season. However, they face a tough regional field in Tallahassee with No. 1 Florida State hosting the meet.
Arkansas, which placed second at the SEC Championships, looks to make its 25th all-time NCAA appearance this season on the women’s side. The Razorbacks came up short at the SEC Championships, largely due to an injury to top runner Semehar Tesfaye, who is listed among the entries for this weekend’s NCAA South Central Regional Championships. It’s an interestingly new lineup for veteran coach Lance Harter this year, but the Razorbacks have done well with their current corps, including a win at the Chile Pepper Festival earlier this year.
The Vanderbilt women, who placed sixth at last year’s NCAA Championships, finished a disappointing third at the SEC Championships on their home course two weeks ago, but expect the Commodores to return strong at the regional championships. Again, the only challenge will be the tough field that they will face at the NCAA South Regional. Depending on what happens across the country and in Tallahassee, don’t be surprised if the “push process” is in effect in Tallahassee this weekend and four women’s teams from that region make the NCAA Championship.
The other takeaway from the SEC Championships is that Kentucky is a really legitimately strong women’s team. According to coach Hakon DeVries, the Wildcats are lacking some needed depth, but Kentucky finished 1-3 at the league championships with Cally Macumber and Chelsea Oswald, and could surprise some people at the NCAA Southeast Regional in Charlotte, N.C., this Friday.
There may have been few prognosticators who expected the Florida women’s cross country team to come away with the SEC Championship two weeks ago in Nashville, but everyone on the Gators’ team believed it and that, according to Spangler, made the difference.
“The athletes believed in themselves,” he told me following the race. “We’ve talked about it all year. They set a goal for themselves to come in and win a conference championship. We talked about just going out there, competing as a team, supporting each other and they just came out here and did what they could and I’m happy that they won.”
Spangler, under the direction of head coach Mike Holloway, has brought a different approach to the Gators in their training that appears to be paying dividends.
Joining Florida from VMI, Spangler carries with him a reputation of getting the most out of every athlete, regardless of his or her baseline ability level. He has also implemented a training routine less focused on mileage and more centered around interval and strength training.
And, most importantly, confidence.
“We do some things differently, but the main thing is that the athletes believe in what we’re doing,” Spangler said. “They believed it from day one, bought into the system and it paid off. It shows that they’ve done a good job to get where they’re at.”
Spangler believes that, in a sense, his team’s victory at the SEC Championships validated his team’s beliefs and training routine, and he expects that to carry over to this Friday’s meet.
“It gives us a lot of confidence,” he said. “They know they’re one of the top teams in the country and I think we’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time. We’re going to the regional championships certainly with a lot of momentum and a chance to move on to the national championships.”
• Last Friday, I announced the SEC Cross Country Awards, featuring Lelei and Macumber as the SEC’s Runners of the Year. The SEC Freshmen Runners of the Year were Arkansas’ Cale Wallace and Vanderbilt’s Hannah Jumper. The SEC Coaches of the Year were Bucknam for the men and Spangler for the women.
• Last season, the SEC advanced four teams to the NCAA Championships – Arkansas and Vanderbilt on the women’s side, and Georgia and Florida on the men’s side.
• 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.
Until next time.