Nov. 1, 2011
Treworgy's Photos | Racey's Photos | Recap: Commodores win SEC title
MARYVILLE, Tenn. - The Lambert Acres Golf Club was peaceful Monday morning as spectators arrived for the Southeastern Conference's cross country championships.
The still air was cool, the turf frosty, the sky gray. Off in the distance, coveys of runners were gliding through the Bermuda grass fairways preparing for what would soon come. This is what cross country runners do before they compete - they run even more.
The men's championship race was first. Fans sporting sweatshirts and coats of every SEC color were strategically clumped in one area that would allow them to see the mass of steaming bodies bolt by several times during the 8,000 meters. Spectators toe the temporary course ropes or chalk lines and scream encouragement to their favorites.
"Come on Georgia! You can do it Gators! Catch him LSU."
The Vanderbilt men gave it everything they had. They just didn't have enough; but that was known before the gun sounded. The Commodore men's team is not funded with athletic scholarships so these guys give it their all for the purest of reasons: they love to run and they like to compete. They will earn a varsity letter for practicing 60 miles per week this fall. They have earned respect. And by the way, a golf cart running full-tilt was trailing the field, giving us a perspective on how fast the slowest runners were traveling after 8,000 meters.
After the Arkansas men won yet another program championship, there was a brief break while the 8,000 meter course was slightly adjusted to accommodate the 6,000 meters the women would soon run. It got colder during the wait; there would be no concerns about the runners over-heating.
Back in the spectator's viewing area, we watched a quarter mile away as the 104 wispy women fanned out across the starting line. Vanderbilt had an outside pole position. The gun sounds and they are off, moving up the gradual incline and then...another gun and everyone stops. Why?
We learn later that in the jockeying for position, someone had jostled Vanderbilt's Alexa Rogers and the senior star had fallen. Cross country rules dictate a restart.
Another gun and the mass of humanity slowly approaches. Was this what it looked like to soldiers at Gettysburg?
The race is far too young for anything to be deciphered at this point and the black-clad Commodores are together in the middle of the bodies. The field loops around keeping almost in sight and comes back to our shouts of encouragement. We hear the public address say the Razorbacks are in first place, Vanderbilt running second as they disappear for five minutes.
There is a defining point in every sporting event that quickens the pulse of the real fan. In basketball it might be a slam dunk; in baseball it could be a triple off the wall and in football perhaps a punt returned for a touchdown.
On Monday, the field came back into view and there were four black uniforms just off the heels of the leader and others nearby. It was an electric moment, one that signified the dominance that would be evident to all in another mile. Vanderbilt had taken the team lead and would not be denied.
As the runners battled their way up the long incline to the finish line, the fans once again roared encouragement for the final push. No one remembered it was chilly.
"Get her Alexa, you can catch her!" we shouted as Rogers -- knocked down at the starting line -- battled Arkansas star Kristen Gillespie the last few hundred yards. In the end, both women would crush the former meet record with Gillespie's 20:19.84 time about three seconds faster than the diminutive Rogers.
Not far behind in fourth was Vanderbilt's Liz Anderson with teammates Jordan White seventh, Louise Hannallah eighth and Kristen Smith ninth -- an amazing five of the top nine finishers in this elite and coveted championship.
The night before the race, the senior Hannallah reminded her teammates of an address that Vice Chancellor David Williams had given all Commodores at the beginning of the fall semester.
"We're not just out there to be part of the SEC," the Maryland product recounted. "We're out there to really prove that we're competitors and we belong out there as the best. We are Vanderbilt. We can come out not just as the underdog, but as the competitor."
A matter of hours later, Vanderbilt had won its first ever Southeastern Conference women's cross country championship. History had been made, a precedent had been set and the sun had even broken through the clouds.