By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
MONTEVALLO, Ala. – Tennessee Tech cross country will get its final test run prior to the Ohio Valley Conference Championships when it competes at the Blazer Classic on Friday morning, hosted by the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB).
Following a stretch of four races in four weeks, the Tech cross country teams were off last weekend to rest ahead of the season's final push toward the championship meets.
"We are excited to be competing in the Blazer Classic this weekend, and to take the next step in our conference meet preparation," said head coach Wayne Angel. "It will be the toughest regional competition we have faced to date, and we have lightened our training load this week in hopes of creating another breakthrough."
A return to live action at the Blazer brings the ensuing chapters of two polarizing storylines that have developed over the course of the season: the formation of an upper-echelon men's team, and the increasing notoriety of Purity Sanga, the star for the TTU women.
The Tech men have finished no worse than sixth at any meet this season, including the three most recent meets, which have each had at least 14 teams in attendance.
Characterized by its strong tendency to keep a tight "pack" while racing, the team reduced the spread between its No. 1 and No. 5 runners to 22.2 seconds at the Greater Louisville Classic, and had all five finish in under 25 minutes for the first time this year.
Sanga has been the best female runner in the conference in each of the first four weeks of the season, taking home an unprecedented four straight OVC Female Runner of the Week awards.
She has asserted herself as the best athlete in the history of TTU women's cross country as well. The sophomore set the five-kilometer program record with a time of 17:20.7 in Week 2 at the Vanderbilt Commodore Classic, and then reset it in each of the following weeks with times of 16:41.58 at the Mountain Dew Invitational and 16:41.3 in Louisville.
Tech was originally slated to run at Florida State's FSU Invitational this weekend, but was forced to improvise after the meet was cancelled due to adverse weather conditions brought on by the approaching Hurricane Michael.
The Blazer Classic, which will be held near the Alabama Traffic Safety Center in Montevallo, represents Tech's final chance to improve during the regular season, and Angel has a plan in mind to make sure his teams get the most out of the opportunity.
"Our primary objectives this week are threefold," he said. "I feel that both teams have gotten better over the last few weeks, and we learned a lot at Louisville, but our first goal is to race better than we did last time out. Next, we want to get out front and 'pack it up' when the race starts; nothing good happens in the back."
"And third, we will be working on our mental edge. It's not human nature to be the best, its human nature just to get by, to be average, to be good enough – that's normal. We don't want to be average. I won't allow it. We don't race to be good enough; we race to be the best. That's our mental edge. I expect some outstanding performances from both teams as well as individuals this weekend."
The women's 6K will be first with a start time of 9:30 a.m., while the gun time for the men's 8K is 10:15 a.m.
TTU will be the only OVC team at the Blazer, so there won't be a last chance to scout any league opponents, but the meet will provide the most rigorous selection of regional adversaries the Golden Eagles have seen thus far.
Both the men's and women's races will feature four ranked opponents in the United States Track & Field Coaches Association's South Region.
Second-ranked Florida State headlines the women's competition. The Seminoles have held a top-four position in the South in all five weekly rankings, including the preseason. The most recent meet-up between Tech and FSU came at the Mountain Dew Invitational, where the 'Noles took a third-place team finish with 122 points.
Tennessee, Alabama and Southern Miss, ranked eighth, ninth and 10th, respectively, will join FSU as the premier entrants.
The field is even more vaunted on the men's side, as the eighth-ranked Tech squad will run alongside four of the top six programs in the South Region.
The Blazer functions as an excellent measuring stick meet for the Golden Eagle men, as it will be their first encounter with Tennessee (No. 2), Alabama (No. 3) and Florida State (No. 5).
The only ranked opponent Tech has seen before is No. 6 Florida A&M, as the two teams crossed paths at the Mountain Dew Invitational. The Rattlers won the team competition with an efficient 26 points, besting the runner-up Golden Eagles' team score of 48.
Xpress Timing will handle the official results and has provided a link for live results, which can be found here.
Photo by Thomas Corhern