Lady Vols finish third in country

FAYETTEVILLE , Ark. - Courtney Champion's second-place performance in the 60-meter dash propelled the University of Tennessee women's track & field team to a third-place finish Saturday night at the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships at the Randal Tyson Track Center.

For Head Coach J.J. Clark's squad, it was a welcome return to the upper echelon of the collegiate track & field world. After placing fourth at this meet in 2004 and winning it in 2005, the Lady Vols slipped to a tie for 18th a year ago. The effort this season gives the Big Orange three top-five NCAA Indoor finishes in the past four seasons and seven top-five indoor NCAA outcomes in program history.

"It was very gratifying to come back and earn a trophy," Clark said. "Many people wrote us off and didn't think we could stay this consistent over the last couple of years. We're just very happy that we were able to move through the rankings and stay focused on our goal, which was to make a run for a championship.

"Really, for a good portion of the meet, we had a chance to win. We were always hanging around and were in position to win. That's a good statement for our program."

Top-ranked Arizona State claimed its first-ever NCAA Indoor title, tallying 38 points, while LSU was second with 33. The Lady Vols tallied 30 points to wind up third, followed by Georgia (28), Auburn (26), Stanford (24), UCLA (23), Texas (22), Michigan (21) and South Carolina and Texas Tech (20 each).

"I don't think many people gave us a chance to be in the top three before the season started and even in the middle of the season," Clark said. "I am very, very proud of our work ethic and what our team did. They deserve a little time off now.

"Courtney Champion is a true champion, as her name indicates. It was definitely a good team effort overall with the hurdles, DMR, mile, 60m and 200m. We just got some points in different areas, and we scrapped for two days."

Champion, a junior from Lawrenceville, Ga., gave UT its third 60-meter dash runner-up in the last four NCAA Indoor meets, covering the short sprint in 7.19 seconds. Like she did at the SEC Indoor Championships two weekends ago, the Lady Vol record-holder crossed the line behind victorious Kerron Stewart of Auburn. The Tiger senior completed a sprint double after winning the 200m on Friday night by posting a time of 7.15.

"This means a lot," Champion said. "I have come a long way; I worked hard and in the end it paid off. It would have been nice to win, but I can't complain. I PRed and got the school record in the 200 and ran my race in the 60, so I am happy overall." Following in the footsteps of Toyin Olupona, who earned second-place 60m finishes for the Big Orange in 2004 and 2005, Champion nearly became the school's first NCAA winner in that event. She led for approximately 55 meters of the race before Stewart found another gear and eased past Champion over the final five meters to claim victory. With the eight-point effort, though, Tennessee moved into second place with 30 points, trailing only Arizona State (35) through 13 events scored.

The Lady Vols entered the final event, the 4x400m relay, trailing the first-place Sun Devils by eight points and leading SEC foes Georgia (28), LSU (27) and Auburn (26), but UT's quartet was unable to score in the event. The tandem of junior LaTonya Loche, freshman Nia Ali, freshman Lynne Layne and senior Leslie Treherne turned in a 3:37.75 reading to wind up 10th. LSU's third-place 4x4 finish, meanwhile, pushed the Lady Tigers past UT into second place in the final team standings.

Sophomore Sarah Bowman opened the day for Tennessee with a sixth-place finish in the mile run final with a time of four minutes, 47.14 seconds. The 2007 SEC champion held or shared the lead through the first six laps of the race, but she could not match the quickened pace when co-leader Barbara Parker of Florida State went around her as they started their seventh trip around the oval. At that point, four others surged to the front as well, with Duke's Shannon Rowbury eventually winning the foot race to the finish on the final lap in 4:42.17.

"We're extremely proud of ourselves," Champion said. "We're thankful we have the coaches we do, because they didn't give up on us. They kept pushing us, and it obviously led to an SEC Championship and a third-place finish in the nation. We are very proud.

"Overall, these experiences have caused us to grow closer to each other. We have grown as individuals and learned how to depend on each other more. Even though track is an individual sport, you can't do it alone, and we've realized that."

The indoor season now complete, the Lady Vols will take next weekend off from competition before resuming action on March 23-24 at the Wake Forest Open in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Right now, they're not really thinking about the outdoor season, and neither am I," Clark said. "We're just going to take this trophy home, add it to our trophy case and hopefully continue to build."

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