Area colleges: VU cross-country jumps into, almost all the way to top of national rankings

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 9:27pm

With one race, the Vanderbilt women’s cross-country team went from the underdogs to the head of the pack.

The Commodores shook up the national landscape when they placed second at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational last weekend. They finished better than 19 ranked teams, including some of the top ones such as Villanova and Providence.

The performance vaulted Vanderbilt from the "eceiving votes" category all the way to No. 3 in the latest U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) poll. The Commodores had been ranked just one other time in program history when they just cracked the polls at No. 30 on Sept. 27.

“This is probably even more shocking than our second place [finish],” coach Steve Keith said. “That is a tangible thing that you can hold onto. We actually did place second at a meet. [The ranking] is something you really can’t hold onto. You take it with a grain of salt.

"... We know some of the top teams didn’t run their full squads there, so we have to keep that in perspective. We definitely have jumped up to a top-10 type team, though.”

Vanderbilt was ranked third in the Southeastern Conference preseason poll and received one of the 12 first-place votes — both firsts for the program. The season began with a victory at the Belmont-Vanderbilt Opener at Percy Warner Park.

But last weekend’s showing was definitely the highlight of the season. Senior Louise Hannallah said the team shed tears of joy when they heard they finished second in a 44-team field — just 12 points shy of champion Washington.

The Commodores’ top five runners finished within 37 seconds of each other, as senior Alexa Rogers, the SEC’s runner of the week, paved the way with a 17th-place finish in 20:32. Sophomore Liz Anderson, fourth-year junior Jordan White and Hannallah weren’t far behind, finishing 35th, 45th and 46th, respectively.

“We were all together about halfway through the race, and that is a powerful feeling when you have five girls within a couple seconds of each other, in a good spot,” Keith said. “I could tell at that point, seeing them all go by together, we’re going to have a good day.”

Vanderbilt is enjoying a breakthrough season thanks to a mixture of experience and youth. Co-captains Rogers and Hannallah, along with White and Michigan State transfer Kristen Smith have provided leadership. But the Commodores also have leaned on six freshmen, most of whom did not run at Wisconsin. They competed at the Pre-Nationals race in Terra Haute, Ind., on Sunday.

“The newness and the excitement that the fresh faces brought added that little extra bit we needed that the experienced runners already had,” Rogers said. “We balance each other out very, very well.”

Now the Commodores turn their attention to the SEC Championships, which will be held Oct. 31 in Knoxville. Coming off its highest finish (third) in the league last year, the team is eying a title but knows it will be a tall order, especially with perennial powers Arkansas and Florida in the way.

Vanderbilt then competes at the NCAA South Regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 12, with the top teams going to the national meet at Terre Haute on Nov. 21. If the Commodores don’t finish in the top two, they hope their body of work is enough to earn them an at-large bid.

The cross-country program never has qualified for nationals as a team and has sent just two qualifiers, including White last year.
 After finishing eighth in the league three years ago, the Commodores could be in the initial stages of establishing themselves as a contender. 

“It has been incredible to see the transition and the growth of this team and the girls on it,” Hannallah said. “It is exciting to know that I will leave next year, having helped create a legacy at Vanderbilt University.”

• Pettis ties record: Lipscomb senior Garret Pettis tied a school record when he scored a career-high four goals in a 5-0 victory against North Florida on Sunday.

He shares the record with Scott Mason, who scored four goals on Oct. 24, 2005. It was the last time any Atlantic Sun Conference player scored that many goals, and ties Pettis for seventh-most in a single game in league history.

Pettis, a native of Elizabethtown, Pa., is also tied for the most career goals in Lipscomb’s NCAA Division I era with 32. He shares that mark with Miguel DaSilva.

• Wu wins regional: Vanderbilt women’s tennis player Jackie Wu captured the USTA/ITA Ohio Valley Regional championship on Tuesday in Memphis.

Wu, a senior from Holmdel, N.J., knocked off three of the top four seeds, defeating No. 2 seed Brynn Boren of Tennessee (6-1, 6-1) in the finals. Wu, the fifth seed, automatically qualifies for the USTA/ITA National Indoors next month in New York.

“What she accomplished this weekend is really a testament to how hard she has worked this fall,” assistant coach Aleke Tsoubanos said. “She really wanted it and the level of tennis she played, getting better with each match, reflected that.”

• Ladies clinic: Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd and his staff will host the first Belmont Basketball Ladies Clinic from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the Curb Event Center.

The clinic will include personal instruction from Byrd and his staff as they will share coaching philosophies and strategies and explain specific plays and rules. The night will conclude with a meet-and-greet with the coaches and select players. Cost is $15 and includes a meal and gift. For more information or to register, contact Wes Burtner at 615-460-5668.