It's time for Northwest Arkansas to get back into the spirit — that cross country spirit.
The University of Arkansas cross country programs host the 2007 Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival this morning at Agri Park Cross Country Course. This year marks the 16th anniversary of an event featuring prep and community running as well as collegiate running.
The marquee race this year could be the women's collegiate race. The race will feature a team-versus-individual matchup as the No. 5 Lady'Back harriers take on No. 24 Texas Tech led by Sally Kipyego, one of the top runners in the country.
"(Texas Tech) will have the finest female distance runners the NCAA has seen in the last three years," Lady'Backs coach Lance Harter said. "In her first year of collegiate running, she won four national titles: two at our indoor facility, one cross country and one outdoor. Sally Kipyego is a phenomenal athlete. She will probably hold the course record as soon as she completes the race."
The other ranked team competing in the women's collegiate division is No. 19 Virginia Tech. No. 9 Arkansas is the only ranked Division-I team competing in the men's collegiate race, but a Texas A&M receiving votes and a No. 1 Abilene Christian team in Division II will try to stand in the Razorbacks' way of a victory that eluded them a year ago.
The number of Division I teams is down this year because of the NCAA pre-nationals in Terre Haute, Ind. Many of the teams around the country will gather this weekend at the site of the National Championship to try to qualify for the NCAAs without worrying about Regionals, Razorback coach John McDonnell said.
"A lot of the schools have to go up to Indiana to qualify, but Lance and I are brave enough to where we think we can make it on our own without going to those meets," McDonnell said.
Both races also feature an SEC preview of sorts. Conference foes Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Vanderbilt are competing in the women's collegiate race while Auburn and Vanderbilt are racing their men's teams as well against the Razorbacks.
While the collegiate races have to compete with the NCAA for competitors, the high school races have grown into some of the largest races in the region. This year marks the largest field for high school entries, with more than 2,500 registered runners, festival coordinator Bruce Dunn said.
Schools from Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee will join schools from around the state in the four different high school races. The state champion Rogers boys and Bentonville girls will be competing, but the Bentonville girls have to replace several graduated seniors this year, Bentonville coach Randy Ramaker said.
"Four of the five scorers that we had in the event last year aren't with us this year because they're either swimming in college or running for small colleges," Ramaker said. "So we pretty much have a new group testing their legs on this course anyways."
The Rogers boys' team seems to have picked up from where they left off last year. The Mounties have competed in two strong meets and have a win against a strong squad from The Woodlands, Texas, which is looking for a little payback today, Rogers coach Carlton Efurd said.
"We don't have to worry about Carlton (Efurd)'s team," Fayetteville coach Kelly O'Meara said. "They are the best Arkansas boys' team I have ever seen."
The festival was started to give area high schools money for their cross country programs. This year, the festival committee raised $20,000 to go to the five largest high schools in Northwest Arkansas.
"We're using this money to get to a certain level of competition," Efurd said. "When the kids enter a race like this, it can be overwhelming. This'll be our third big meet of the year, and it's not as intimidating when you come to this one when you've already been to other ones. We're trying to compete, at least on the guys' side, with the best in the region."
The event kicks off at 8 a.m. with an open 10k race.
Razorbacks: Chris Barnicle, Lane Boyer, Michael Chinchar, Kenny Cormier, Shawn Forrest, Tyler Hill, Daniel Lacava, Scott MacPherson, Matt Munoz, Duncan Phillips, Rio Reina, Orey Smith.
Lady'Backs: Denise Bargiachi, Erin Gray, Jennifer Harper, Megan Jackson, Christine Kalmer, Lauren Lewis, Dani Perry, Caroline Peyton, Tiffany Redlarczyk, Jillian Rosen, Miranda Walker, Catherine White, Lydia Woodward.
Race Start Times
Chile Pepper Open (10K) 8:00 a.m.
Fun Run/Walk (1 mi.) 8:05 a.m.
Men's Collegiate (10K) 9:45 a.m.
Women's Collegiate (6K) 10:30 a.m.
Senior High Boy's Invitational (5K) 11:00 a.m.
Senior High Girls Invitational (5K) 11:30 a.m.
Senior High Boys Open (5K) 12:30pm.
Junior High Boys (5K) 12:30 p.m.
Senior High Girl's Open (5K) 1:15 p.m.
Junior High Girls (5K) 1:15 p.m.