Arkansas Heads to National Championships with
BY ANDRES FOCIL
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The seventh-ranked Razorback cross country team is making its 29th-straight appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Nov. 24, when it travels to Waterloo, Iowa in search of its 12th national crown. The Hogs are taking a young squad to the 10K race that includes three true freshmen.
Senior All-American Alistair Cragg, senior Chris Mulvaney, junior All-American Jason Sandfort, sophomore transfer Matt Gunn and freshmen Josh Harper, Mike Poe and Sam Vazquez will all represent Arkansas on the Irv Warren Memorial Golf Course. Sophomore Said Ahmed will serve as UA’s alternate.
“We’re young with some experience, but we don’t have a lot,” Arkansas head coach John McDonnell said. “We’ll have to depend on quiet a few freshmen to step up. They’re good freshmen as far as freshmen go and we’ve asked a lot of them. Our main goal this year was to win the conference and see what happens at nationals. The thing I like about this group is that they can rise up to the occasion. At conference all seven of them ran outstanding.”
Sub-zero temperatures and blistering winds are expected the day of the race and it’s a factor that McDonnell and his Hogs do not shy away from. In the past Arkansas has excelled in poor conditions and the Razorbacks will need all the help they can get as they go up against 30 other schools, including defending NCAA champion and top-ranked Stanford.
“I don’t know if the weather will be an equalizer against Stanford, but they’re really strong and they have everyone back from last year,” McDonnell said. “Anything can happen. A trophy would be nice. We’re going out with the intentions of winning it and if it happens, it happens.”
After earning national runner-up honors last year (29:06) and third place (29:10) in 2001, Cragg has his sights set on the individual title. Even though Cragg underwent surgery in September he has made a remarkable return and been UA’s top finisher at the Southeastern Conference Championships and NCAA South Central Regionals.
“In order for us to win Alistair would have to finish in the top three and that’s expecting a lot of him, but every day he’s getting better and better,” McDonnell said. “If we just had another week that would be tremendous. (Jason) Sandfort is looking really good, along (Matt) Gunn and (Mike) Poe. We have a lot of guys that have good potential, even though a lot of them are freshmen.”
NCAA mile champion, Mulvaney, will also help lead the squad. The Bolton, England native has had a great senior campaign and recently earned All-SEC honors at the league meet with a ninth-place showing.
“I’m excited because it seems like Chris Mulvaney has turned over a new leaf and is training the best he ever has,” McDonnell said. “He could be a big factor on this course, because it’s relatively flat. That will suit Mulvaney and Sam Vazquez. Then the real strong guys can handle it either way.”
Sandfort has stepped up this season and was UA’s top finisher in four meets. During his career he has earned two All-America accolades in cross country with 31st (30:29) and 32nd-place (30:04) finishes and will be expected to run in the top pack once more.
This year’s NCAA Championships will mark the first time Gunn has advanced to the big race. He has come back in a big way this season after recovering from a broken foot in 2002. At the 10K Chile Pepper Invitational he registered a career-best time of 30:32.
UA’s trio of freshmen, Poe, Harper and Vazquez account for the league’s top freshmen after they posted fifth, 10th and 15th-place performances, respectively at the SEC Championships. Poe and Harper have consistently been a part of Arkansas’ top-five contingent. Both will look to power their way to the top in Iowa. Vazquez has looked strong in practices and hopes to contribute to an Arkansas victory.
The NCAA Cross Country Championships will be run at 11 a.m., on the Irv Warren Memorial Golf Course in Waterloo, Iowa. Fox Sports will broadcast the event on Dec. 3 at 2 p.m.
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