It would be something of an understatement to say this Saturday's Pre-NCAA Invitational is important to coach Todd Morgan.
"This is kind of like the Florida-Georgia (football) game in terms of importance for us," he said. "As far as regular-season meets, this is without a doubt the biggest one."
More than 80 of the top cross country teams in the nation will compete Saturday in Terre Haute, Ind., on the same course that will host the NCAA Championship on Nov. 24.
Morgan said the meet will be one of the largest and most aggressive contests his team will compete in all season, so it will help prepare the team for the Southeastern Conference Championship on Nov. 3 and give the runners an idea of where they stand against the nation's best.
"It's the most competitive meet in the country," Morgan said. "It's not the national (championship) meet, but the intensity and the amount of teams there - it's that kind of atmosphere."
But it's not just an opportunity for UF to establish itself as a frontrunner for a title against the 11 ranked squads it will face. It's also a chance for the Gators to show how far their program has come in the last few years.
"It's nice to wear the Florida jersey and represent that we're becoming one of the top cross country programs when we haven't been that in the past," senior Jacy Kruzel said. "We still feel like we have something to prove. We're still not one of the names that people throw out when they think of cross country, so in some respect, we still feel like underdogs."
Kruzel was the first Gator to cross the finish line in last year's NCAA Championship, a performance she attributes to her stronger focus as a result of the increased competition that will also be found this weekend in Terre Haute.
Since Kruzel came to UF in 2005, the women's team has slowly been piecing together the talent that led to last year's 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championship. Now the No. 15 Gators are confident they can be one of the nation's top 10 teams.
Part of that improvement is a result of the team's maturity heading into the end of the year. Morgan said his runners won't be pulling any punches Saturday because of the national implications of this meet, but they also know the real focus is the SEC and NCAA Championships.
Kruzel, one of the team's leaders, views the pre-nationals the same way - as a very important part of the buildup to the bigger meets later in the season.
"It just kind of gets our feet wet and tempts us to get back there in late November," she said.