The No. 26 Tennessee women's cross country squad proved the pollsters right.
As the league's only nationally-ranked program, the Lady Vols backed that up emphatically on Monday, cruising to the team title at the Southeastern Conference Championships at the University of Georgia Golf Course.
Tennessee accumulated 57 points to hold off second-place Georgia (95) and claim the third SEC women's cross country title in UT history, following triumphs in 1983 and 1990. Coach J.J. Clark's squad also ended a five-year run of titles by Arkansas, which was stymied in its attempt to bag an 11th trophy in 13 years as a league participant.
Clark, who came to Knoxville after 10 years as cross country coach at the University of Florida, is the only conference women's coach to challenge the dominance of the Lady Razorbacks since they joined the SEC in 1991-92. He also won the SEC with Florida in 1996 and 1997.
It's a great thing for our program to be able to win the SEC championship in our second year together, Clark said. I am extremely pleased with the way our team executed today, and we are excited because we believe we can be even stronger next year.
Athletics director Joan Cronan hired me and asked me to win with integrity, and that's what we are striving to do.
Arkansas, the preseason favorite, ran near the front as usual and managed to place third with 103 points. Kentucky, picked third in the SEC coaches poll prior to the campaign, wound up fourth with 106.
Setting the pace for Tennessee for the third time in 2003 was junior Brooke Novak, who ran to a third-place finish in a time of 21:58.45. That result earned her All-SEC accolades once more and made her only the seventh Lady Vol who has made the all-conference squad three times or more. Novak now has finishes of 10th (2001), eighth (2002) and third (2003) in SEC action.
When I came to UT, I really wasn't confident that we would win a conference championship in my four years here, Novak said. The hiring of coach Clark has been such a blessing, and we are fortunate to have some great girls on this team. We all worked really hard together and had a confident, but humble, attitude coming in.
Today, we just took care of business, and now we get to go home with the trophy.
Joining Novak in the all-SEC club were sophomore Megan Cauble, who finished fifth in 22:09.20 and showed remarkable improvement over last year's 20th-place performance, and sophomore Mindy Sullivan, who placed 11th in 22:44.54.
Tennessee will now have two weeks to prepare for the Nov. 15 NCAA South Regional in Auburn, Ala. The Lady Vols will attempt to defend the 2002 region title they won on their home course at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville, Tenn. At stake will be a trip to the Nov. 24 NCAA Championships meet in Waterloo, Iowa.
Vols finish in middle of the pack
Before the women took home the title, the UT men raced to a sixth-place finish in Athens.
Arkansas won the its 13th consecutive title with 33 points and six runners in the top 11 finishers. Host Georgia finished runner up with 58 points followed by Florida (95) and Alabama (97).
Tim Kelly was Tennessee's top finisher with a 17th-place finish (25:55.14). Freshman Dusty Miller finished 22nd (26:10.21), while Jeff Day's 26:37.59 was good enough for 32nd place.