Lady Vol relay team qualifies for NCAAs

BLACKSBURG, Va. - Second-ranked Tennessee's distance medley relay team punched its ticket to the NCAA Indoor Championship meet Friday night at Rector Field House, cruising to an automatic qualifying time of 11 minutes, 7.89 seconds and breaking a facility record en route to victory at the Virginia Tech Elite Meet.

The Lady Vols, who posted the second-fastest time in the nation this season and the fourth-best in school history, had to come from behind to triumph. They did so in convincing fashion, running down Virginia Tech and Penn State to relegate the Hokies to second place in 11:14.67 and the Nittany Lions to third in 11:17.93.

UT's first two legs included freshman Brittany Sheffey (Bellport, N.Y.), running the 1200m hitch and passing the baton with the Orange and White in second behind Va. Tech, and freshman Brittany Jones (Pompano Beach, Fla.), who covered her 400m leg and made the exchange with her team still trailing the hosts. On this night, though, it was the final two contributors who pushed J.J. Clark's quartet to victory.

Running the 800m portion, sophomore Phoebe Wright (Signal Mountain, Tenn.) briefly surrendered second place to PSU's Briene Simmons. The former walkon, however, responded to the challenge with a vengeance and sent Tennessee on its way toward accomplishing its mission for the evening. By the time Wright's turn with the stick was done, she had taken her squad from third to first.

From there on, junior Sarah Bowman (Warrenton, Va.) did the rest, as the All-America miler had a one-second advantage over PSU's Bridget Franek when she took the baton for the 1600m closer and had expanded it to nearly seven seconds by the time she crossed the finish line.

"It's good to get the auto mark in the DMR and secure a spot at the NCAA meet," Clark said. "All four legs ran well. Definitely, Phoebe ran a great leg to put us into position, and then Sarah showed her consistency and dominance on the anchor by running a nice mile. It's good to see them work together as a unit and look very good."

Junior Courtney Champion (Lawrenceville, Ga.) claimed UT's first triumph of the evening, taking the 60-meter dash title in a season-best and NCAA provisional readout of 7.32 seconds. She had previously run 7.36 at the Penn State National on Jan. 25 and tonight improved her stock on the national NCAA qualifying list to ninth and her placement on the Southeastern Conference top times list to fifth.

The victory was Champion's second at 60m this season, duplicating her triumph at Penn State. Also winning her heat in the prelims tonight at 7.37, the UT record-holder is undefeated in four career 60m races at Rector Field House and has won six of seven attempts at that distance in 2008.

Champion closed out the evening by finishing first in the 200 meters as well. Logging her first one-lap effort of the season, the 10-time All-American zoomed around the oval in 23.77 to chart the best readout by a Lady Vol this season and the number-four time in the SEC thus far.

"Courtney put a couple of solid marks on the board," Clark said. "She's been getting better as the weeks have progressed, and she's been very consistent. She made another drop tonight in her 60 time and posted a solid 200m opener, and I think she will only continue to move forward in lowering her times."

Senior LaTonya Loche (Bastrop, La.), running her first open 400-meter race of the campaign, uncorked an NCAA provisional readout of 54.10 to snag fourth place in the invitational division. It was her fastest season debut in the quarter mile since her freshman year. Loche's mark ranks her ninth in the nation thus far in 2008 among collegians and fifth in the Southeastern Conference.

In the 60m hurdles, junior Celriece Law (Denver) joined the list of Lady Vols collecting NCAA provisionals. After winning her prelim heat in 8.50, the 2007 All-American found another gear and hit 8.37 in the final to snag fourth place and join the NCAA's secondary list.

"LaTonya Loche opened up with a 54.1 provisional, which was one of the fastest openers she has had as a Lady Vol," Clark said. "We also had Celriece moving down in her hurdle time. I can definitely see her timing coming back, and that's very good to see, because she's a big talent for us."

In the weight throw, senior Shanna Dickenson (Cincinnati, Ohio) had her second-best showing of the year to take fourth place. Her heave of 62-7 1/4 met the NCAA provisional standard but was not a season improvement. Freshman Annie Alexander (Port-of-Spain, Trinidad & Tobago) made her first career appearance in the event, registering a toss of 41-8 1/2 to place ninth.

In the open division of the pole vault, sophomore Jennifer Lewellen (Kernersville, N.C.) cleared the opening bar of 10 feet, 4 inches to grab ninth place. Classmate Katie O'Connell (Collierville, Tenn.) was unable to navigate that barrier and charted a no-height.

On Saturday, Tennessee returns to the track with entries in nine different events. Action gets underway for UT at 1:40 p.m. and concludes around 5:30 p.m.

SEC HONORS: On the heels of her impressive showing last weekend, Tennessee women's track & field standout Sarah Bowman was the Southeastern Conference Female Runner of the Week.

Bowman made her individual-event season debut on Saturday at Kentucky's Nutter Field House, and it was a impressive one. Bouncing back quickly from an appendectomy four weeks earlier, the defending SEC champion sliced up the track in the mile run, defeating her nearest competitor by more than 10 seconds en route to a career-best and meet-record time of four minutes, 37.86 seconds.

The mark, the fastest recorded by a Lady Vol in 21 years, automatically qualified Bowman for the NCAA Indoor Championship meet in Fayetteville, Ark., on March 14-15. It rated as the fastest time this season among collegiate runners, and it stands as the third-best mile readout ever achieved by a UT woman

The three-time All-American returned to the track later in the day to compete in the 800 meters. The Big Orange standout added an NCAA provisional qualifier to her list of accomplishments, knocking out a time of 2:07.32 in that event. Her effort was the second-fastest among collegiate performers and placed her fourth overall in the race. That clocking ranks her sixth nationally and second in the SEC this season.

Bowman also is provisionally qualified for the NCAA meet and ranks No. 1 in the SEC with UT's distance medley relay.

The award for the UT junior was the fourth conference accolade of the season for the second-ranked Lady Vol track & field team.

Rookie Annie Alexander has twice (Jan. 15 & 29) been chosen the SEC Freshman of the Week, while sophomore Lynne Layne earned SEC Female Runner of the Week kudos on Jan. 15.

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