Hog Harriers Head to Cowboy Jamboree
BY ANDRES FOCIL
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – When John McDonnell and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks cross country team arrive at Stillwater, Okla. this weekend, they will be missing a familiar tag. For the first time in recent memory, Arkansas will not carry the moniker of defending meet champion into the competition.
Abilene Christian halted Arkansas’ 16-meet regular season winning streak in last year’s race sending Arkansas a wake-up call prior to the championship run. The NAIA school repeated the feat two weekends later in Fayetteville at the Chile Pepper Invitational. McDonnell used the unexpected losses to rally his squad on the way to an 11th NCAA cross country national championship.
“That is unusual that we are the defending national champion, but not the defending champion of the Cowboy Jamboree,” McDonnell says. “That was one of the things that helped up last year. You hate to lose, but if it doesn’t cost you your national championship hopes than it can be all right. A lot of times when you win, win, win – it is hard to keep guys motivated.
“I think we pointed to that last year. I told them we weren’t going anywhere unless we changed our attitude and decided that the championship was going to be ours. They did. We had very few numbers last year. All you need is five, but the five need to be healthy and you need those five to perform the same day. We were able to do that last year.”
The squad that takes to the hills of the course in Stillwater this weekend will look vastly different than the lineup Arkansas boasted a season ago. Only junior Daniel Lincoln returns from Arkansas’ top seven runners from the 2000 season. Despite the personnel departures, the Razorbacks are still garnering national acclaim. Arkansas is ranked third in most recent MONDO National Cross Country poll. McDonnell says the Hogs’ lofty ranking is simply a matter of respect.
“It’s pleasant (to be ranked that high) when you have one guy back from your top seven,” McDonnell says. “They are ranking us on our tradition and the thought that we are going to do something. I think our guys are going to show that we are going to do something. You put on the red and white and it does mean something. They are very focused. I can see the team concept coming together.”
The Razorbacks were dominant in their first outing of the season easily outdistancing two teams at the Arkansas Invitational on Sept. 8 in Fayetteville. The Hogs captured eight of the first 10 places in their season debut.
Arkansas was slated to compete at the Missouri Southern Stampede on Sept. 15 before the Southeastern Conference canceled all league competition for that weekend in light of the recent terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
This weekend’s race will be the first competition for the Razorbacks in three weeks and only the second outing of the season. While the season is relatively young, the Hogs have only one more regular season meet following the Cowboy Jamboree prior to the SEC Championships set for Oct. 29 at Auburn, Ala.
“We have done some pretty good training,” McDonnell says. “Some things have been impressive in training. But then again, training isn’t racing. Some guys are competition-type people and can rise to the occasion. We don’t know that yet. When the lights come on they step it up and the cream rises to the top. We just don’t know how much cream we have right now.”
Arkansas’ lineup appears to be stacked again in 2001 especially at the top three positions. Lincoln, sophomore transfer Alistair Cragg and sophomore Fernando Cabada provide the Hogs with a lethal trio atop the entry list.
Lincoln and Cragg crossed the line together at the Arkansas Invitational sharing top individual honors with a time of 19:50. Meanwhile Cabada has caught the eye of his legendary coach in the early going.
“I feel good about our top three guys,” McDonnell says. “Lincoln is the only guy we have back with big-time meet experience and he should be a leader for us. Cragg is good. He has the potential. He has a big heart and good speed. Fernando has been a pleasant surprise so far. He has looked really good.”
McDonnell hopes that a competitive field combined with a challenging course will help the Hogs develop some depth at the bottom of the lineup. Junior Dirk Heinze, sophomore Westley Alkin and sophomore Chris Mulvaney are all veterans that are in the mix. Sophomore transfer Silverus Kimeli and freshman Jason Sandfort are the newcomers competing for a spot.
McDonnell will especially be looking for breakthrough performances from Heinze and Kimeli.
“Dirk and Silverus could be a key. They are talented guys. If they move up, I think we will have a good team. They should be able to move up with Cabada and that group. If they do that, we will have a tough five.”
The Razorbacks’ should face a credible challenge from at least a trio of teams this weekend. Last year’s champion Abilene Christian will be tough again as will fellow NAIA school Adams State. Oklahoma State also boasts a quality lineup that will be running on its home course.
While the Hogs have more than their fair share of challengers, McDonnell is focused on getting his squad prepared for the stretch run. A win this weekend would help the Razorbacks down that road. A victory would also place the Hogs in a more familiar position for next year’s race. McDonnell hopes his squad can step off the bus in 2002 as the defending champion of the Cowboy Jamboree.
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