Every Arkansas victory is special to John McDonnell. But the way the Hogs ran Saturday morning at the UA's Agri Park in winning their 31st straight league cross country title might be especially meaningful.
It might mean the Hogs are prepared to contend for another national championship.
The fourth-ranked Razorbacks blew away the opposition in coasting to the Southeastern Conference championship could be a preview of more great things after newcomers took the first, second and fourth spots in the standings. Arkansas won with 23 points. Florida was next with 72.
It wasn't just where the newcomers placed, too. It was the way they did it, said McDonnell. He loved the way Josphat Boit broke down Georgia's Simon Ngata, a man Boit lost four times against last year, and the way Shawn Forrest passed Ngata twice in the stretch run.
Boit, the Kenyan via Cowley Junior College, won in another romp, covering the 8k course in 23:09.91. He ran comfortably with Ngata on his shoulder before breaking away with one mile remaining, per the plan assigned to him by McDonnell.
That left Ngata just ahead of Forrest, the freshman from Australia running his first race for the Hogs after getting his paperwork cleared just last week. Forrest pulled up with Ngata and passed him with just over 500 yards to go. Ngata picked up the pace and challenged Forrest, quickly reclaiming the second spot. Forrest answered with another burst, pulling away over the final 400 meters.
"We are definitely a top four team," McDonnell deadpanned when asked if the Hogs might be better than he thought. "I knew Josphat Boit was very good, but I didn't know he could run cross country like this. I thought he would be good on the track, but he's taken to cross country very well."
Forrest wasn't a surprise to McDonnell or any of his teammates. The Australian has been running well in training while UA administrators ran down a paperwork snafu. His academics were in order when he arrived at the UA, but a date on his VISA did not match a date on some other documentation. UA administrators wanted to double check that situation.
"It was okay probably, we knew that," McDonnell said. "But why take a chance. He's trained very well and has looked really strong the last two weeks. We thought he would run well today. He's been running with Boit and Rodrigues in our training runs."
Boit had run against Ngata on the junior college circuit last year. Ngata, running for Butler, had beaten Boit, running for Cowley, in all four of their meetings.
"I knew I was much stronger since I got here," Boit said. "I felt I could beat him. I ran very easily today. I've never felt as good over the last mile of a course as I did today. It felt really good.
"The play Coach McDonnell gave me worked. He said to break him at the one-mile (to go) mark. He said if I did that again, that he'd fall back and some of my teammates could pass him, too. It worked just like he said it would work. Shawn got him down the stretch."
McDonnell loved the way his squad ran in front of the home crowd.
"It's always fun to do this at home," McDonnell said. "We've only run four conference championships at home. I think we won two here in the SWC and now two in the SEC."
Jason Sandfort, seventh, and the Hogs' fourth counter, was the only runner who was off his game a bit. He had a slow start before picking off rivals over the final two miles. Sandfort has been staying with Boit, Forrest and Rodrigues in training runs and McDonnell expected a strong time from him, too.
McDonnell said it was a remarkable performance for the Hogs' fifth man, sophomore Matt Gunn.
"He's a walk-on and didn't have much competition where he grew up in Idaho, so he was behind when he came here," McDonnell said. "He's worked so hard. That was a great result for him today, a very fine run. He's coming."
How good is Boit?
"I think we will find out at NCAA," McDonnell said. "We'll see some good ones there. But he's handled everything so far. He's run very welll against Alistair Cragg and Daniel Lincoln in our training. He can run faster than what he ran today. He wasn't pushed at the end.
"Obviously, he knows what it means to hurt and to push himself, but I don't think he's really had to do that yet. We'll see at nationals."
Boit didn't seem concerned, and didn't worry about any competitors.
"I don't focus on any one person," he said. "I just try to run my race. That is all I worry about.
"This was fun today, to run here in front of a big crowd. Our team ran well and that's great, too. I knew what we would do today. Shawn has been running with the lead pack and we knew he would do well today."
It was a tough day for the Arkansas women's team, a near miss for the team title. Tennessee, the defending champ, won it with 55 points, nipping Arkansas with 57 when the Lady'Backs fourth and fifth runners lost four points to the Lady Vols last two runners.
Arkansas' top three runners outscored Tennessee's top three, led by Alison Zeinner-Rush's third place finish. Maureen Scott got a sixth for the Lady'Backs. Laura Jakosky was 11th, Kristina Smith was 17th and Jessie Gordon was 20th. The Lady'Backs had some tough luck when talented Penny Splichal did not finish.
"Our front three put us in brilliant position," said UA women's coach Lance Harter. "Our fourth and fifth runners were back there a ways and then made it close by finishing really well. I think with one mile to go, we were probably 15 to 17 points down and they passed a bunch of girls to make it close.
"I'm proud of Alison. Her goal this year was to make All-American and she's got that in sight. She can get there with the way she's running."
The strong closing burst bodes well for the Lady'Backs chances at making nationals. They didn't close well earlier this month in losing to SMU at the Chile Pepper Festival. Harter thought they closed much better in this outing.
Josphat Boit (center) leads teammate Marc Rodrigues and Georgia's Simon Ngata early in the SEC meet.
Photo by Matt Hardin
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