Lady Vols look to defend SEC title

The objective this weekend for the University of Tennessee women's cross country team is to win its fourth straight Southeastern Conference trophy. To attain that goal, however, the 15th-ranked Lady Vols must overcome No. 4 Arkansas, two other ranked schools and the rest of the league Saturday at the SEC Championships in Baton Rouge, La.

UT, under the direction of fifth-year Head Coach J.J. Clark, will put its 82-9 season record and three-year streak of conference titles on the line at 9 a.m Central Time (10 ET) at LSU's 6,000-meter Highland Road Park Course.

In addition to 10-time league champ Arkansas, No. 17 Florida and 20th-ranked Georgia will also present obstacles in Tennessee's bid for another piece of hardware.

For the Big Orange women to maintain their dominance of the league in recent years, Clark's squad will need season-best performances from everyone.

"We want to go out there and make sure we run our best and stay focused on our goal, which is to repeat as conference champion," Clark said. "I believe our team is very good. We are coming around at the right time, and I look forward to seeing our team step up.

"Everyone has to step up, and we will have to compete at our best. Winning it will not be easy, but none of our championships has been easy."

Well, perhaps the first one would fit into that category, as UT out-distanced Georgia , 57-95, in 2003. The past two years, though, Tennessee has turned back stiff challenges from Arkansas. UT prevailed by two points, 55-57, in 2004 and by three, 48-51, in 2005.

Despite that streak, and the return of All-SEC performers in seniors Katie Flaute and Felicia Guliford and sophomores Sarah Bowman and Leah Soro, the Lady Razorbacks were picked by the league's coaches as the favorite in the preseason poll.

Arkansas has thus far proven worthy of those accolades, posting a 66-0 record and rising into the nation's top five in the USTFCCCA poll. Tennessee, meanwhile, has built momentum with each of its four races in 2006, finally starting its best 10 runners on the same weekend for the first time this season at the ISU Pre-Nationals Invitational on Oct. 14.

At that meet, the Lady Vols gave their confidence a strong boost and gained newfound respect from the pollsters, as UT defeated six ranked schools in finishing seventh out of 37 teams in the "White Race." The result was a rise from 24th to 15th in the next poll.

"It was a boost for us, not only because of the result, but because we also got Felicia Guliford back after she hurt her ankle at the Paul Short meet, and because Leah Soro ran for the first time all season and looked so good. The team was just excited, and we needed that excitement.

"All the pressure is on Arkansas, because they have been the number one team (in the SEC) all year. It gives us something to chase after, which is exciting."

Tennessee will pursue the program's fifth overall SEC title on Saturday with the aforementioned all-league standouts as well as a pair of sophomores and four freshmen.

While Flaute has been the squad's most consistent performer, leading the team to the finish line three times and running second on another occasion, rookie Jackie Areson has been Clark's most dependable underclass performer. She has scored in all four races this season, running third for Team Orange at the Pre-Nationals meet and second at the Paul Short Run in her past two outings.

In all, seven Lady Vols have filled scoring roles this season for UT. Besides Areson and Flaute, the others include Guliford, who was second individually at last year's SEC meet, sophomores Bowman and Katie Van Horn and freshmen Rose-Anne Galligan and Kelly Parrish.

Soro, all-league and all-region a year ago and eighth two weekends ago in the Open division race at the Pre-Nationals meet, gives Clark eight proven scoring threats to fill the five spots that count toward the team's point total. That depth is something he and Tennessee have never had at their disposal.

"It only takes five to get it done, but I am glad to have the depth, because it gives us more opportunities for someone to run a great race," Clark said. "We'll need all the help we can get, and I feel confident that everyone who is traveling is capable of being in the top five on any given day."

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