Arkansas Set for SEC Championships with Return
BY ANDRES FOCIL
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – On November 3, the eighth-ranked Razorback cross country team will travel to Athens, Ga., for the Southeastern Conference Championships in search of its 30th-consecutive league crown and 13th-straight SEC title. The Hogs won 17 in a row while they were members of the Southwest Conference. The 8,000-meter race will be held on the University of Georgia’s golf course at 9 a.m. EST.
The team’s journey should be made easier with the returned help of senior All-American Alistair Cragg. Cragg missed the majority of the cross country season after he had surgery on September 26, to correct a sport hernia he had been suffering from since May.
“We’re balanced,” Arkansas head coach John McDonnell said. “Alistair is not where we’d like him to be, because of the operation. He’s a gifted athlete and advanced quickly. He’ll be in the chase for the individual title.”
Nine UA harriers will make the trip, but only eight are allowed to compete. Recent injuries have left a couple athletes questionable for race day, so McDonnell is bringing more than usual to give viable options in order to ensure a victory. Joining Cragg is senior Chris Mulvaney, junior All-American Jason Sandfort, sophomores Luis Bordes, Matt Gunn and Michael Taylor, and a trio of freshmen, Josh Harper, Mike Poe and Sam Vazquez.
“We’ve had our share of ups and downs in the health area,” McDonnell said. “We’re not sure if Luis Bordes is going to run, so we’re bringing another freshman, Sam Vazquez, just in case. We’ve had some other aches and pains, but they’re going to blow that whistle at 9 o’clock and we better be ready to go.”
This is a young squad considering only four of the runners have experience at the conference meet. Sandfort has proven to be a solid, dependable runner and had stepped up in Cragg’s absence. The West Plains, Mo., native has been the Razorbacks’ top finisher in all four meets this season and at last year’s championships he came in sixth.
Taylor has been a pleasant surprise this year and at the Chile Pepper Invitational he bested his previous career-best by nearly two minutes when he ran a time of 30:25. On Monday Mulvaney will be counted on to finish high and had his best showing at the Missouri Southern Invitational (25:25).
Last year Bordes helped Arkansas clinch the championship when he came in 15th (25:44). He will hope to give the Razorbacks a boost again as he carries a best 8K time of 24:41.
Poe has already served as UA’s second man with his performances at the Missouri Southern and Chile Pepper Invitationals. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product’s top 8K time this season was 24:40. Harper is a former teammate of Sandfort and has been a significant contributor as a freshman. Harper has consistently been a part of UA’s top five scorers in the past four meets.
Even though he transferred from Clemson last year, this is Gunn’s first year to run cross country for Arkansas. He recently posted a career-best performance as UA’s fifth man at the 10K Chile Pepper Invitational with a time of 30:32.
Hailing from Flagler Palm Coast, Fla., Vazquez has had strong practices and last ran at the 8K OSU Jamboree where he turned in a time of 25:45.
In order to keep their streak alive the Hogs will have to fight off other conference opponents, such as Georgia and Florida. Both are talented teams and the Bulldogs already topped UA this year at the OSU Cowboy Jamboree, but McDonnell and his Razorbacks remain confident in their ability to bring home the trophy.
“It will be a battle,” McDonnell said. “Georgia has beaten us already. We’re running on their home course, but I don’t think it’s going to make that much of a difference when you come down to it. Florida is a very talented team. They’re a little like us, they haven’t put it all together yet, but they could. If they put it together they’ll be better than Georgia. Of course you can never count out Tennessee and Alabama has a strong front two. There are a lot of teams there with a chance. We’ll have to depend on three freshmen to get it done and if we do what we’re capable of I think we have a very good shot at it.”
After the Arkansas squad returns from the SEC Championships they will have a week off to prepare for the District VI NCAA Regional Championships in Waco, Texas on November 15.
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