Rush leads Arkansas to near upset of UT in closest SEC meet in history

FAYETTEVILLE – A heroic performance by senior Alison Rush led the 20th-ranked University of Arkansas to within two points of recapturing the league title, but defending champion Tennessee held off the Lady Razorbacks’ furious comeback for a two-point victory at the 21st annual Southeastern Confererence Women’s Cross Country Championship held at Agri Park Cross Country Course. The 11th-ranked Lady Vols win the closest team title in SEC history in defending their title against the homestanding Lady Razorbacks. Last year, Tennessee defeated Georgia by 38 points. Auburn’s Angela Homan ran away with the individual title with a commanding performance covering the 6,060 meter course in 20:25.92. Georgia’s Jill Steffens was a distant second at 20:46.91. Rush was third in 20:59.71. “We told the team from the beginning that if we ran a perfect race we could win by as many as two points,” UA head coach Lance Harter said. “As it turns out, we lose by two, but without those four runners we still end up having a great day. We’re better than what we showed today, and that’s encouraging for regionals.” Rush was the front-runner for Arkansas who finished a disappointing third last year at the league championship to break a long streak of consecutive titles. She was joined on the awards stand for all-SEC honors by teammate Mauren Scott in sixth and Laura Jakosky in 11th. Sophomore Kristina Smith barely missed all-conference honors in 17th place. “Jessie Gordon and Kristina Smith did a great job and our front three ran brilliant,” Harter said. “Those front three were the impetus that got us the scoring punch to do well.” While the team title slipped from Arkansas’ grasp, Rush had a career performance at the SEC meet. “I’m in a super confident mind-set right now and Lance (Harter) has done a great job in keeping me positive and keeping my training going well,” Rush said. “Individually, I’m ecstatic with how I ran, but of course we’re all disappointed as a team.” “Ali’s dream has been to be an all-American and a race like this today certainly forecasts her into that position,” Harter said. “I was really proud that she got as close as she did to (Homan and Steffens) because that’s a pair of returning all-Americans at the front of the race.” The strategy was to control from the front, and it worked early on. “What got us in trouble last year was not intimidating the field early,” Rush said. “This year we wanted to go from the start. Our training on the course all year also helped us know we could go out fast. We came in with a plan to go after the race as a team, and we did.” While the front three established and held their position throughout the race, Arkansas’ hopes of winning its 11th SEC championship were betrayed by a poor showing at the fifth slot. In a finish eerily reminiscent of the 1997 SEC race at South Carolina, two of the Lady’Backs’ top runners – former SEC freshman of the year and current junior Penny Splichal and Erica Sigmont – did not finish the race. Last year’s NCAA Championships individual qualifier Shiloh Whiting was 24th overall and out of the scoring five for the Lady’Backs. “I just wish we could have one more major player, and we’ve got them in the line-up but we just didn’t have four people not perform today,” Harter said. “If we could just get all seven people to function on a given day, we could be a pretty formidable team. Tennessee’s been ranked as high as 11th and Georgia was 17th. We knock off 17 and we scare 11 really hard.” Arkansas’ game plan was to break from the starting meadow and take control, and the Lady’Backs had turned the event into a three-team race by the first mile marker. Rush, Scott and Jakosky had position on Tennessee’s top two runners, Felicia Guilford and Elizabeth McCalley, and were ahead of the Lady Vols’ three, Katie Flaute. Georgia had Steffens in pursuit of Homan’s breakaway, but the middle of the Bulldog pack could not keep pace with Tennessee and Arkansas. By the time the teams wound their way out of the Razorback Meadow at the Farmer’s Daughter turn, the Lady’Backs had finished any chance for a Georgia rally and focused on the Lady Vols. “Georgia began to struggle around the 2K mark with their middle people, and this surprised us a little,” Harter said. “After that point, it did become a matter of our fourth and fifth runners identifying the Tennessee fourth and fifth runners.” Rush and Guliford jockeyed for position down the hill and into the starting meadow while McCalley pulled ahead of Scott. As the teams came through the second mile and began the climb back up near Farmer’s Daughter, Scott and Jakosky surged past Tennessee runners to open the door for Arkansas. The Lady Vols responded on the back side of the course as the teams ran past the pond for the final time, and it appeared Tennessee would have an easy victory as Splichal, Sigmont, Whiting and freshman Tiffany Redlarczyk faded. “We knew that the battle was at the front and we wanted to clear things out early,” Harter said. “Then it was just a matter of interfacing, and our front three did a great job with that. With a mile to go, our four and five rallied to make it close.” But as the course trimmed out on the final stretch, Kristina Smith and Jessie Gordon began to surge past fading runners. Megan Cauble of Tennessee couldn’t keep Smith at bay as the sophomore finished 17th in 21:34.39, but the Arkansas’ four ran out of time to catch the Lady Vols’ fourth runner, Carly Matthews. Gordon rounded out the Arkansas’ score at fifth runner in 20th with a time of 21:50.70 for the slightly long women’s course. Whiting finished the race in 24th overall in a time of 22:02.33, followed by sophomore Laura Kerr in 34th at 22:20.72. Redlarczyk was the top displacing runner in the meet with 45th overall in 22:46.08 to round out Arkansas’ finishers. For the first time in SEC history, teams were allowed to enter as many as 10 runnres, which a handful of teams like Arkansas did. As a result, the race was the largest in the 21-year history of the event with 97 total finishers and over 100 starters. The two-point win made the race the closest ever, bettering a six-point margin by Arkansas over Auburn at the 1995 meet at Starkville. Tennessee now has four team titles, second to Arkansas’ 10. This year’s race marked only the fourth time in the 14-year membership of Arkansas in the SEC that they did not capture the league title. Arkansas has next weekend off before heading to Texas for the NCAA South Central Regional Championship at Baylor on Nov. 13. The top two teams at the regional receive automatic bids to the NCAA Championship at Indiana State on Nov. 22.