After earning an automatic bid the past four seasons by virtue of winning the NCAA South Regional, the 25th-ranked Lady Volunteers this time made the meet as an at-large team. UT did so by finishing third in the regional meet at Lambert Acres Golf Club in Maryville last Saturday morning and joins Florida State as one of two South squads earning at-large bids. Victorious Georgia and runner-up Florida got the region's automatic invitations into the 31-team field.
Tennessee, which was picked by the league's coaches to finish second in the SEC and ranked 14th in the first USTFCCCA poll of the season, has battled injuries and illness to several members of its squad to make it back to Terre Haute. Those setbacks, combined with the emergence of other formidable teams in the SEC and South Region, may have ended UT's run of NCAA appearances had it not been for the team having arguably its deepest cache of runners in school history.
"Our region is a little tougher this year, and we had some things not go perfectly for us in the (regional) race, but our depth came through and provided us an at-large bid," fifth-year UT coach J.J. Clark said. "I was very confident after the race that we'd get in, but I really wanted to get there automatically. I think we could have easily done so if we had a couple of athletes able to focus a little better.
"I'm looking forward to getting to Terre Haute and trying to run better. "I think our conference and region have prepared us well for this meet. We just want to put our best foot forward and have a chance to prove ourselves at the national level."
The Lady Vols provided an example earlier this season that they were worthy of a trip to this meet, as they came away with a seventh-place finish out of 37 teams in the "White Race" at the ISU Pre-Nationals Invitational in Terre Haute on Oct. 14. En route to that outcome, in what amounted to a regular-season version of the NCAA Championship meet, Tennessee defeated six top-30 programs that day and collected some experience that is sure to assist them as they toe the line on Monday.
"I think (because of our trip to the ISU Pre-Nationals meet) the team is familiar with the course and the rush at the start with such a large number of great teams," Clark said. "Going there earlier this season allowed us to have that same type of atmosphere we will see on Monday and also to beat some ranked teams. That enabled us to come here with some confidence in knowing that we can get something done."
Clark will make the trip with five NCAA veterans and three newcomers. Among his leaders are Katie Flaute and Felicia Guliford, who will become only the second and third Lady Vol cross country runners to make four NCAA appearances in their careers. During their time at Tennessee, the fifth-year seniors have propelled the program to its most successful period ever, winning four NCAA South Region titles and three SEC trophies, and contributing to the team's overall won-lost record of 515-113-1 during that time.
In addition to Guliford and Flaute, who have been UT's top two finishers at the last two NCAA meets, sophomores Sarah Bowman, Rolanda Bell and Leah Soro return after competing in Terre Haute a year ago. Bowman earned both All-SEC and All-South Region acclaim in 2006, while Soro has overcome injury to compete in the team's last three races, scoring fifth at the SEC meet. Bell, who was UT's alternate at the regional meet, has been much improved over her rookie season and will make her second trip to the national meet.
A sophomore and two freshmen will be getting their first taste of NCAA competition. Katie Van Horn, who transferred to UT last January after earning All-Atlantic 10 honors as a freshman at Richmond, emerged as the Big Orange's first finisher at the 2006 regional meet. The Glendora, N.J., native's eighth-place overall outcome elicited All-South Region accolades. Rookie Jackie Areson wasn't far behind Van Horn at the South Regional, picking up all-region kudos with a 10th-place performance and posting her sixth scoring finish in as many races this season.
Rose-Anne Galligan, meanwhile, is trying to break out of a four-race streak of not being in the team's top five. After running second and fourth, respectively, on the team in the first two races this season, the product of County Kildare, Ireland, is searching for the form that boosted her to a 49th-place finish at the 2005 IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships.
If Galligan can solve the puzzle, and UT can have its best meet of the season, the Lady Volunteers may very well be able to break through with the program's first NCAA top-20 finish since 1990.