By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Following record-book performances at the OVC Championships, the Tennessee Tech cross country teams have spent the past week and a half recuperating and preparing to be at their best at the biggest meet of their season to date: the NCAA South Region Championships.
The South regional races will be held Friday morning at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, Fla., with the women's six-kilometer competition kicking off the action at 7:30 a.m. CT. The men's 10-kilometer run will follow, and is schedule for an 8:30 a.m. start. Both races will be aired live on ESPN3, and can be found using the search bar on the ESPN3 section of the ESPN website.
While the results at the OVC Championships painted a positive outlook for both the near and distant future of Wayne Angel's Tennessee Tech cross country program, the fifth-year head coach is confident his teams are ready to step up their game yet again to meet an even greater challenge.
"We're focused on what we want to accomplish on Friday," he said. "The teams seem to be more relaxed and prepared to achieve their goals. From what I've observed in practice, we are ready to rock and roll."
Considering the number of miles traveled in both competitions and practices by this point in the year, health is always a major concern for any team when the championship meets come around. Fortunately, Tech has avoided the injury bug, and should be at full strength when the starting guns go off.
"We're as healthy as can be," Angel said. "Our athletic trainer, Mike (Brown), has done an outstanding job of keeping our student-athletes ready to perform when it counts."
While there is no denying the grandeur of the South regional meet, Angel was quick to put things in perspective, and point out that the No. 1 goal is to perform well enough to extend the season.
"The regional is the second of our three championship events, and it's the only way to get to the NCAA Championships in Madison, Wis., next week," he said. "If we race well, we will punch our ticket."
In order to qualify as a team, the Tech squads must finish inside the top two in Tallahassee, or, post a result worthy of one of the 13 at-large spots.
"A lot happens on Friday – not only in Tallahassee, but nationally – that will determine if we qualify for the Championships," said Angel. "But it all starts on Friday, and we have to be ready when the opportunity presents itself."
The Tech runners were supposed to get a preview of the course at Apalachee during the Florida State FSU Invitational back on October 12, but were forced to make alternative plans when Hurricane Michael moved in on the eastern Gulf Coast.
Instead, they descend on the Sunshine State, site unseen, to take on the best teams the South Region has to offer.
"There are a number of really good teams in our region," said Angel. "I wouldn't be surprised if three teams make it to the nationals out of the South Region."
"We're not taking anything for granted; we know that we have a huge challenge ahead of us". We are heading to Tallahassee believing that we have a chance to get out like everyone else."
Purity Sanga leads the Tech women into battle, fresh off her individual title at the OVC Championships – the program's first champion since Stephanie Place in 2008.
Sanga has proven herself to be an elite talent on a variety of occasions this season, and had a successful regional meet last year (eighth-place finish). Her coach believes she should be included with the highest company in Friday's competition.
"I believe that Purity has a great shot at making (the NCAA Championships) as an individual," Angel said. "She is also one of the favorites to contend for the individual title, along with (Pascoe) and Jessica Drop of Georgia."
To move on automatically, Sanga must finish in the top four overall, or, with some luck, could also claim one of two national at-large positions.
Forty-six teams are scheduled to compete in the women's race, led by Florida, the No. 1 team in the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association South Region rankings.
Tech has already crossed paths with the Gators once this season, at UF's own Mountain Dew Invitational, where Pascoe was the only runner to finish ahead of Sanga, the runner-up.
No. 3 Florida State is also a familiar opponent for the Golden Eagles, as the teams have met twice this season at the Mountain Dew and the UAB Blazer Classic.
Five other OVC teams – Austin Peay, Belmont, Jacksonville State, Tennessee State and UT Martin – also hail from the South Region. Of those five, Belmont (third) and UT Martin (sixth) were the only two clubs to finish ahead of the TTU women at the league championships.
The Golden Eagle men's team is flying high entering Friday's race, coming off its highest finish at the OVC meet since 1962 (third place), and cracking the USTFCCCA South Region list as the No. 7-ranked team.
The Tech men have shown themselves to be a complete team that can score very well when all five members bring their best. The group, comprised of Brannon Cheplak, Sammy Kipkirui, Gabriel Kiprono, Ababu Mohamed and Benard Sigei, has finished no lower than sixth at any meet this season, and also has three runner-up results, one third-place and one fourth-place finish.
To continue their historic run, Angel knows where his men's team needs to improve.
"Our men have got to be a little more engaged, particularly at the beginning of the race," he said. "Nothing good happens in the back."
There are a number of Tech's familiar foes rounding out the USTFCCCA top 10, including the second-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, a team Tech beat head-to-head at the UAB Blazer Classic.
Belmont comes in at No. 3 in the rankings, propelled by its runner-up finish at the league championships two weeks ago. Tech has finished directly behind BU at both meets that the two programs have encountered one another (Commodore Classic).
Three Florida schools – the host Florida State (No. 4), Florida A&M (No. 8) and Florida (No. 9) round out the ranked teams Tech has competed against already this year.
"I truly believe that our fortunes will rise and fall with our mental focus, and how aggressively we race," Angel said. "If that happens, we will have a lot of fun and it should be a very good outcome."
Photo by Eric Mueller, Southeast Missouri Strategic Communications