Coming off its worst performance of the season two weeks ago at Pre-Nationals, UF’s women’s cross country team has found confidence in finally facing some familiar competition.
The Gators will compete today at the Southeastern Conference Cross Country Championships in Columbia, S.C., against a field they decimated a year ago by 56 points after five UF runners placed in the top 10.
So far this season, however, the women's team's lack of strong performances have led it to drift out of the rankings after starting the season at No. 8 and the SEC coaches’ favorite to repeat as conference champions.
“There is still a lot of confidence on the women’s side,” coach Todd Morgan said. “Though it’s given some teams the feeling like they might have a shot.”
On Oct. 16 in Terre Haute, Ind., the Gators were bested by a Georgia team that finished two spots ahead of them in 17th place during the Pre-Nationals-White Race. Vanderbilt and Arkansas also finished the day with better team scores than UF while competing in the Blue Race.
After the meet, the Commodores and the Bulldogs jumped Florida to No. 2 and No. 3 in the South Regional rankings making them the de facto favorites over the No. 4 Gators heading into Monday’s meet. Historically, Vanderbilt’s highest finish in SECs was fourth place in 1997; last year it ended the day in sixth. Georgia placed fourth and a distant 94 points behind the Gators in 2009.
“Our sport is a little different from a lot of others in that rankings and standings don’t really mean a thing until your conference meet, regional meet and national meet,” Morgan said.
Morgan also pointed out that the rankings don’t reflect UF’s addition of All-American and 2009’s SEC Athlete of the Year Rebecca Lowe to the roster for the first time this season after she sustained an injury during a summer track meet. Lowe won SECs last year by five seconds over fellow Gators runner Charlotte Browning who came in second.
“It’s kind of been a very different season to last season,” Browning said. “I feel like last season we were very strong from the start; whereas this season, people are kind of slotted in as the season goes on.
Morgan said the weekly adjustments to the roster should be over now that the team has reached its championship meets and will run full-strength for the first time this season. He also made both the women and men’s teams change their interval paces in practice to get them used to starting the SEC race harder.
The nationally-ranked No. 26 men’s team will also look improve on last year’s fourth-place result at SECs behind first year runner Dumisane Hlaselo, who’s been UF’s top finisher in each race he’s competed in this season.
Hlaselo said the advantage of running in this meet, compared to Pre-Nationals, is the lesser size and scope of the field. For most of the men’s team’s last race Hlaselo was alone at the front after the rest of his team was swallowed up by the hundreds of other runners.
The Gators have not won the SEC meet since 1987, but Morgan is still encouraged by the improvement his team has been making with each meet since starting the season unranked.
“The guys are excited, they can sense it,” he said. “You always go into a conference meet with the anticipation you’re going to win. But this year you can tell they understand that we have a more talented team than last year.”
The women’s 6K race begins at 10 a.m. followed an hour later by the men’s 8K. The men’s and women’s All-SEC teams will also be announced following the race. UF had six women and one men’s runner honored last year. Morgan also took the SEC Women’s Coach of the Year award.