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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Florida’s cross country teams kept two streaks alive Saturday morning at the NCAA South Region Championships. One the program will celebrate on the bus ride home from Hoover, Ala., and one to think about until next year.

For the fifth consecutive season, UF’s second-place finishing women’s team received an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship on Nov. 22, while the Gators men’s team came up 21 points shy of second place FSU and another automatic bid to match their teammates. 

The men’s team hasn’t made it to the national championship race since 2005.

The women’s second-place finish as a team came behind three of its top runners finishing the day’s 6K race with their best times of the season. Genevieve LaCaze paced the Gators out front with a fourth-place finish and a 20:06.10 run, which shattered the junior’s previous career-best effort by 48.4 seconds. Finishing one spot behind her was senior Charlotte Browning in fifth place with a 20:11.17 run that was a mere 1.32 seconds faster than her career best. 

“Charlotte, definitely, and Gen are really getting back to where they need to be,” coach Todd Morgan said. “[LaCaze] wants to be a great runner, so she’s starting to really come into form.”

In her second race of the season, Rebecca Lowe narrowly missed out on a top-10 finish after winning the South Region last year. The senior finished in 12th place with a season-best run of 20:26.71. Lowe’s result Saturday was a 48-second improvement from her first race back after a summer hamstring injury.

“I feel great about how things are going. I feel like we ran better than we did two weeks ago at the SEC Championship. So we’ll fine tune a couple of things and just carry over this momentum to the NCAA meet.”

Despite strong performances from the Gators’ top runners, FSU turned in an even more impressive display by placing five runners in the women’s top 10. The grouping helped Florida State run away with first place in the South Region Championship by 43 points over UF.

“They’re a good team,” Morgan said. “They’re strong together and are running really well right now. Our girls ran really strong, too, though.”

It was also a group of FSU runners in the men’s race that dashed the Gators chances at a higher finish, but in this case, for much higher stakes. After Florida’s Dumisane Hlaselo and James Uthmeier crossed the finish line in fourth and 12th for the Gators, they were still within five points and striking distance of a second-place finish and an automatic berth to nationals. 

The next three Gators runners, however, came farther down the line in 18th, 20th and 23rd place, which proved to be too much of a spread compared to FSU’s sweep of the 15th through 17th spots. Those points were pivotal in the final tally, giving the Seminole’s a 21-point advantage over Florida.

The Gator’s 76-point result was especially disappointing for Morgan when he considered last year’s 143-point showing that had the Gators pushed back to fifth place. In 2009, Florida’s 76 points would’ve been more than enough to give them a bid to NCAAs.

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“I’m proud of the way those guys ran,” Morgan said. “We came in gunning for a top-two finish, but they didn’t leave anything out there on the course. So we’re just waiting to see if someone can help us out for the national meet.”

An at-large team bid is still an outside possibility for the Gators, Morgan said, but they will have to wait until Sunday night to know for sure. He does think that Hlaselo definitely has a ticket punched to Terre Haute, Ind., next week as one of the 15 individual bids to nationals. The junior from South Africa has been Florida’s top runner this season finishing first for the Gators in each race he’s competed in, missing the top-10 only once, and was named a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection two weeks ago. 

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