Cross Country Headline
By Jenna Perlman
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The year was 1987. Emmitt Smith was a freshman tailback at Florida. The UF basketball team was coming off its first NCAA Tournament berth. Mary Wise was an assistant volleyball coach at Kentucky and was four years from coming to town.
And the UF men’s cross country team was on its way to a Southeastern Conference championship.
It hasn’t won a league title since.
With UF hosting the SEC Championship meet for the first time since 2002, the Gators hope this is the season their conference drought comes to an end. The Mark Bostick Golf Course will be the site of the SEC meet on Nov. 1, but the rolling UF fairways also will serve as the course for Saturday’s 25th Mountain Dew Invitational and thus provide a test run against some familiar faces.
“The SEC will be well represented,” Florida coach Paul Spangler said.
Among the 27 teams competing will be four of the Gators’ SEC opponents -- Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee -- so UF will get a chance to preview them, as well.
“We won’t approach the race any differently,” said Mark Parrish, the senior from Tampa and Florida’s top runner on the men’s side. “We know we’re fit, and we know we’ve put in the work.”
Seeing good competition early is never a bad thing. Especially for freshmen runners whom Florida will need later on in the season. This meet not only will give those first-timers a chance to size up the competition, but do so in their own backyard.
“These are recognizable faces,” Parrish said. “Racing these people now will give us some motivation throughout the season. If we don’t beat them Saturday, we’ll know we need to get them by the time we get to SECs.”
For Parrish, hosting the SEC Championship is more than being able to sleep in his bed or hear “Go Gators!” while running on a course he is familiar with. It means a better chance to win a title that has eluded the team for 26 years.
The Gators are off to a good start in trying to run down that elusive league crown.
At last weekend’s Western Carolina Invitational, the men took home first place, with Parrish capturing the individual title with a time of 14:55 over the 5k track. Teammates Jimmy Clark, Eddie Garcia and JL Hines, a trio of juniors, finished third, fourth and sixth, respectively.
The win marked the ninth of Parrish’s career and was a great start for Spangler’s soft-spoken senior and team leader.
“He is a quiet guy, but with my experience over the years it’s the quiet guy, when the gun goes off, who is the toughest to beat,” Spangler said. “He’s a very, very tough competitor. He does a good job of leading by example and works hard in practice. He’s really solidified himself as one of the top runners in the country.”
Now he wants to be the top runner on a championship squad.
“Whatever I can do to help us win a SEC title as a team, that’s what I’ll do,” Parrish said.
A SEC title isn’t the only goal Parrish has for his senior season. He’s shooting for All-America status, which is a top-40 finish at the NCAA Championships. In his 2011 sophomore season, Parrish finished 68th at the NCAA meet with a personal-best 10k time of 30:32. On his return trip as a junior -- when he along with Clark represented the Gators as individual entries -- he ran 50 seconds slower and finished 174th.
This year, Parrish wants to lead UF back to Nationals as a team, so the upcoming weeks and races are about building on their current stride. The Mountain Dew Invitational will be a good test for the Gators to see what it will take to win the SECs. And more.
After 15 straight top-five league meet finishes (the team was fifth last season), the Gators believe winning a SEC Championship is within their reach. A healthy team that runs its collective best on the same day may be just what the men’s team needs to break through.
Home-course advantage certainly can’t hurt.
Follow Jenna Perlman on Twitter: @GatorZoneJenna