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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Rebecca Lowe doesn’t feel like the same runner from a year ago.

After a hamstring injury shelved the first half of her junior season, Lowe’s once-dominant, championship-winning form that produced back-to-back victories at the 2009 Southeastern Conference and South Regional meets is gone with the decay of six months away from hard training.

“I’ve definitively had to rearrange my goals for this season,” Lowe said. “My goal is to basically help out the team as best as I can. Individually, I don’t really have any specific goals.”

As the Gators prepare for Saturday’s NCAA South Region Championship in Hoover, Ala., Lowe’s focus has turned to reenergizing a women’s cross country team that has slipped in her absence. During their tumble out of the rankings in early October, the Gators complained of getting lost amid the hundreds of runners competing in their two biggest meets of the season: the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational and the NCAA Pre-National meet.

In both of those races, Florida’s top-five runners had an average time gap of 26 seconds between them at the finish and placed as a team in seventh and 19th place, respectively.

After Lowe made her first appearance with the team last week at the SEC Championships, however, the separation between runners had shrunk to 9.5 seconds and the Gators won their second consecutive conference title.

Lowe said she attributes the improved time splits at SECs to her ability to communicate with the underclassmen runners who will round out the Gators’ scoring spots.

“If you’re running with your teammate, then you know you’re doing good, but if you’re left out there alone it’s a different story,” Lowe said. “You start doubting yourself.”

With only five seconds separating Florida’s top-three runners in their last race, UF coach Todd Morgan said the women’s team will need a similar spread this weekend to lock up one of the two automatic bids up for grabs to the NCAA Championship on Nov. 22.

“The biggest thing is that they were all there running,” Morgan said. “They did a good job, but it’s a lot easier to move around when it’s not as many people.”

Much like the Wisconsin and Pre-National meet, the South Regionals will see more than two-hundred runners competing at a time. And while Florida will avoid a rematch with an Arkansas team that nearly beat it in Columbia, S.C. a week ago, they will still have to keep tabs on No. 2 Florida State. Both the Seminoles men’s and women’s teams won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship on Oct. 30.

While Florida couldn’t match FSU’s dual-championship day with the men’s team finishing third at SECs, the Gators are looking to put in a strong enough day to guarantee an NCAA Men’s Championship appearance for the first time since 2006.

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“They started talking about that the moment after last year,” Morgan said. “It’s something that they decided needed to change.”

Along with All-SEC runner Dumisane Hlsaelo, the men’s team will rely on a resurgent Derek Wehunt, who improved his SEC Championship finish by 45 places from 2009 and posted a personal-best 8K time of 24:39.35. Wehunt said this year’s result is largely due to increasing his weekly training regimen by 30 miles over the course of the season.

The added challenge this week for the men’s team, however, is to tackle the extra 2K added to NCAA Championship races. Though the team has yet to compete in a 10K race this year, Morgan said the Gators regularly train at the distance in the offseason so he doesn’t expect the increase to pose a problem when they run against No. 6 FSU and No. 25 Alabama.

“Derek’s trained terrific all year long,” Morgan said. “You saw it Monday, at practice and then at the home meet. He’s just got to bring that again and he’ll be good.”

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