Nov. 21, 2013
Vanderbilt Athletics has two historic three-peats in motion this fall. Many sports fans realize our football team is bowl-eligible for the third consecutive year.
Fewer may be aware that the same can be said about our women's cross country team, which heads to Terre Haute, Ind., Saturday to run in the NCAA Championship once again. The Commodores earned that right a week ago with their season's best effort, gaining an automatic qualification by finishing second at the NCAA South Regional.
These two programs are making bowl games and NCAA Championships appear automatic but a look at the record book shows it is anything but simple.
In the case of football, the program made bowl games in 1955, 1974, 1982 and 2007 before the latest run, fueled by new coach James Franklin.
In cross country's case, Vanderbilt had never made the NCAA's big dance until Steven Keith highlighted his building project with an SEC championship in 2011 and sixth-place finish at the nationals.
That was truly a break-through moment, setting the cross country program at a much higher altitude and, like its football counterpart, raising expectations. Indeed, Vanderbilt was back at the NCAA finals a year ago and was disappointed with its 27th place finish.
If football can be a game of inches, cross country is a sport of seconds and even tenths of seconds. At the elite levels, it can also be thrilling as a runner staging a strong finish can shave dozens of points from the team score (low score wins!) while another runner, perhaps bothered by the elements or cramping, can saddle her team with many more points as competitors rush by to the finish.
Winning, in other words, requires lots of teamwork, strategy, hard work and plain old good luck.
The Commodores are hopeful that they are peaking at the right time as last week's regional run was much stronger than their Southeastern Conference showing where it was a disappointed fifth.
Terre Haute was the scene of our 2011 surprise and Vanderbilt hopes the course will again be favorable. The race begins at 1:00 (CT) Saturday afternoon.
Whatever may occur, one thing for certain is that two programs that until recently were not contributing to one of the department's goals of a high finish in the Director's Cup (national all-sports standings) are both contributing annually.