Cross Country Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Early Wednesday afternoon as they gathered outside the Lemerand Athletics Center to prepare for an afternoon run, members of the UF women’s cross country team enthusiastically chatted about the events of 48 hours earlier.
They talked about the windy conditions they had to endure and how some had drafted behind others to increase efficiency. They talked about the team’s strong finish in the race’s final 600 meters. They talked about the excruciating wait to see which team had won.
Several of them displayed proof that in the end, they were the winners. The Southeastern Conference champions T-shirts they wore gave it away.
“It was so close,’’ senior Charlotte Browning said. “It was exciting to be waiting to see what the outcome was.’’
The Gators captured their second consecutive SEC Cross Country Championship on Monday afternoon in Columbia, S.C. But it wasn’t nearly as easy as in 2009 when Florida steamrolled into the conference meet with a lineup that had been together all season.
Since the 2010 regular season started, Gators coach Todd Morgan has often had to patchwork practice runs and lineups due to various injuries and schedule conflicts. Not until Monday’s meet had all nine UF runners competed at the same time on the same day.
The biggest boost was provided by junior Rebecca Lowe, who finally made her long-awaited return to competitive cross country by finishing sixth overall in her first meet of the season. Lowe suffered a torn Achilles tendon during the indoor track season last spring and had not competed in a cross country event since.
Browning, the Gators’ top finisher with a third-place performance, pushed herself near the end thanks in part to Lowe’s return as the two ran side by side for much of the race. Browning passed two Arkansas runners in the final 50 meters to help account for the victory.
Florida edged the Razorbacks by a point in the final standings.
“That was amazing,’’ Browning said of Lowe’s impressive return. “She is such a talented runner. It was her first race and she helped all of us out. It was amazing she could come out and be such a good influence and help our team score so much.’’
With the top five finishers accounting for the final team score, a pack of Gators made a late push to the front in the final stages of the race. Without the strong finish down the homestretch, Florida would not have repeated as SEC champs for the second time in school history. The Gators also accomplished the feat in 1996 and 1997.
“Charlotte passed two Arkansas girls with less than 50 meters left. That’s a two-point swing,’’ Morgan said. “Within the last 600 meters of the race, every single one of my five girls [in the scoring] passed someone and we won by a point. If one of those things doesn’t happen, we don’t win.’’
Of course, the hardest part of the race was after it was over. While the men completed their meet, the women cooled off and waited as the official scorers tabbed the final results. It was an emotional roller coaster.
“To be perfectly honest, I thought we had lost,’’ Morgan said. “Just doing quick math in my head and talking with people, I thought we had lost by about three or four points. So to get the news that we had won was phenomenal.’’
More than an hour after the women’s race concluded, a jubilant scene erupted for a team that entered the meet still uncertain of its potential due to a lack of training together.
All the questions quickly faded when the results were posted.
“The SECs was one of the most exciting races I’ve been in team-wise since I’ve been at Florida,’’ Browning said. “We were communicating and bonding in the race, and that really helped us get to the front of the race.’’
Junior Genevieve LaCaze, whose late push toward the front helped her finish eighth, proudly wore her SEC Champions T-shirt on Wednesday as she did a TV interview. After she was done, she let Browning wear it for her turn in front of the camera.
“I’m so proud of the way our team came together,’’ LaCaze said.
The Gators laced up their running shoes Wednesday afternoon taking one last look back before quickly turning their attention to the NCAA South Region Championships, which take place Nov. 13 in Birmingham, Ala.
“I feel like the SEC is the start of what is to come,’’ said Browning, a native of Chichester, England, who is nearing the end of her cross country career and hopes to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London.
The Gators will arrive in Birmingham next week as one of the favorites thanks to their memorable win at the SEC meet. With Browning rounding into form and Lowe healthy, the top of the lineup has Morgan excited about the possibilities.
But more than that, the team unity the Gators developed at Monday’s meet has Morgan thinking big. At the region and NCAA meets, teams area allowed to take only seven runners, with the top five counting toward the team score.
Morgan is optimistic the Gators can continue their late surge if they repeat Monday’s effort.
“It was hard to get a really good team dynamic going when those two girls [Browning and Lowe] are never there,’’ he said. “If I didn’t know it before, I definitely know now how strong a team dynamic can elevate a whole group, especially your younger people.
“That’s never been more clear to me than this fall.’’
Shortly after doing those TV interviews Wednesday, the team headed off to San Felasco Park for a run.
Once he returned, Morgan shared a cool story.
“While we were running, three guys jogged by and yelled, ‘Good job.’ I thought that was cool. People are paying attention.’’
Those SEC Champions T-shirts gave it away.