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Razorbacks Striving for Cross Country Championships

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By Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE – Coach Chris Bucknam’s nationally No. 9 SEC champion Arkansas Razorbacks men and Coach Lance Harter’s nationally No. 8 SEC Razorbacks women make runs striving for national championships at Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, Fla.

For  the SEC Cross Country-Indoor Track-Outdoor Track triple championship Razorbacks odds are getting increasingly tougher to win NCAA Cross Country though Harter’s Razorbacks won a NCAA Cross Country-Indoor-Outdoor triple crown for 2019 and Bucknam’s Razorbacks placed third in the 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships run last spring because the covid pandemic postponed the 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships always scheduled just before the Thanksgiving break.

NCAA Cross Country is getting tougher for schools like Arkansas and Oregon trying to spread scholarships among distance runners, sprinters, jumpers, vaulters and throwers to be nationally competitive in track because many schools like defending NCAA Men’s champion Northern Arizona put nearly all their eggs in he distance basket.

“I counted 20 of the 31 teams that qualified (for the NCAA Women’s Cross Country)  that their reputation is to run distances,” Harter said,   And then there is the complete other side that totally ignore cross country, or maybe just tolerate it, and load up (for track)  for  in the sprints and jumps and so on.  There’s a cadre on both sides and there’s a few of us in the middle.”

Still, the Razorbacks men and women are at least distant contenders.  Bucknam’s men likely loom  closer to the top than the polls indicate.  They dropped from seventh to ninth in the poll because they ran second to 13th-ranked Texas in the Nov. 12 NCAA South Central Regional Qualifying meet in Waco, Texas.  Second is as good as first in the regional qualifiers for automatically advancing full teams to nationals.

Bucknam was ever wary of overexerting in that 10K qualifier with Saturday’s 10K national champion run ahead.

“We eased it up at the end,” Bucknam said.   “I think we had a 16-point lead with 1K to go and I was there to tell them not to sprint.  ‘Don’t run hard. ‘ We were easily in the Top Two and that’s all I cared about.  It was all about getting to the final.”

That won’t be Saturday’s objective in Tallahassee.

“The goal is to win it,” Bucknam said.  “We know that’s ambitious but we know we can contend for it.  You need a little bit of luck and for things to go right but those things only happen if you’re in contention.  We’ve got to put ourselves in contention to have a shot at it.”

To do that as a team means positioning at the halfway point to be close to the top but not spent to get there.

“We have to delicately yet aggressively be in position at the halfway point to make a run at it,” Bucknam said.

Led by Amon Kemboi’s second place, Bucknam’s Razorbacks will run the same seven of Kemboi, Jacob McLeod, Myles Richter, Andrew Kibet, Emmanuel Cheboson and former SEC champion Gilbert Boit. 

They have run Florida State’s national course at the 40-team Pre-National meet and placed third, a tie breaking eyelash behind Colorado with Northern Arizona prevailing.

“Even though Northern Arizona won we tied Colorado basically and  I think Colorado won the Pac 12,” Bucknam said. “We beat some good teams.

I think Northern Arizona is the team to beat and Notre Dame, BYU, Colorado , Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Stanford, we’re all pretty even.” 

Earned upon his Razorbacks winning both the SEC and NCAA South Central Qualifying meets, Harter said Benton’s Gracie Hyde, a University of Central Arkansas transfer,  will be on the 7-women roster in Tallahassee after running well at the SEC meet and the South Central Regional.

All-American Krissy Gear, withheld from the Regional to refresh for Nationals, track All-American Lauren Gregory, Isabel Van Kamp,  Meghan Underwood and Logan Jolly, Logan Morris  before her marriage when she first transferred to Arkansas, lead the Razorbacks into Tallahassee.

Brigham Young returns the gist of its national championship team but by the Coaches poll ranks fourth behind North Carolina State, New Mexico and Colorado and just ahead of Minnesota and Oklahoma State.

“They (BYU) are pretty formidable but they have been beaten this season by New Mexico and North Carolina State.  Colorado, too,” Harter said.   “Those are the four everybody is probably watching as favorites.  And then from 5 to  15 is a blanket of teams and we are definitely in that  conversation.”

Could Arkansas finish among the podium’s top four?

 “If we had a perfect race,” Harter said.   “We have no room for error.  But if we walk away with a Top 10 that would be exceptional considering cross country has always been preparation for indoor and outdoor track for us.”

Harter and Bucknam welcome the cross country change of venue to Tallahassee (race temperatures of the high 50s to low 60s are predicted, Harter said) from the national race’s traditional cold weather climes.

“I think it should be a welcome change of pace from getting out your snow gear in places like Terre Haute (Ind.)  and Wisconsin,” Harter said. “That’s been some of the coldest I’ve ever been.”

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