For much of last fall, the Vanderbilt women’s cross country team flew under the radar.
Not this season.
After winning their first Southeastern Conference championship and placing sixth at the national meet, the Commodores have blown their cover. Last month, the SEC coaches picked them to repeat as league champs and for the second straight week they were ranked sixth nationally in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll.
Naturally, it seems everyone wants to challenge them.
A huge contingency of 25 Division I women’s teams — and 24 men’s teams — will gather at Percy Warner Park this Saturday morning for the Commodore Classic.
Technically this is Vanderbilt’s second meet of the season but only freshman and sophomores ran at last month’s Belmont Opener, also at Percy Warner Park. Coach Steve Keith plans to run his top five runners this time in a meet filled with familiar competition.
The Commodores will also host the SEC Championship on Oct. 26, so eight women’s SEC teams will be on hand to get a sneak peak of the course.
“The SEC [meet] is adding another six or seven schools to it,” Keith said. “I think our exposure for our women the last couple years and the success they’ve had has kind of created, ‘Hey, let’s go down to Nashville and try that out.’ Then a couple of schools cancelled their meets north and south of us. ... So all that put together is kind of a perfect storm.”
More than 200 runners will compete in four races on the 6,000-kilometer course, slightly longer than last year’s 5K race. The men will compete on an 8,000-kilometer course.
Runners and spectators also will see two new bridges. Concerned about the sturdiness and congestion, Vanderbilt, in collaboration with Metro Parks, raised most of the funds for upgraded structures.
“They knew that they needed to get those done, too, desperately,” Keith said. “All the high school and middle school races out there — that’s the highest impact area of Percy Warner Park is that one little cross country course. ... It was just not championship caliber. Now we got some bridges that will outlive all of us.”
Four hundred meters into the race, a wider 22-foot bridge will greet the field. A 12-foot wide bridge is located further into the race, shooting across a creek.
“It won’t bottleneck as quickly at the beginning, which will be easier to start,” sophomore Grace Orders said. “We don’t have to get out as fast. [The bridges] were a little shaky before but they’re a lot better. They did a good job.”
Vanderbilt returns four runners — Orders, seniors Kristen Smith and Jordan White and junior Liz Anderson — who ran at the national meet. They’ll try to replace the leadership of All-American Alexa Rogers and Louise Hannallah, who both graduated.
Expectations are plentiful but the Commodores say they’re trying to not to dwell on the success 2011. Winning another SEC title and reaching the podium — top five teams — at the national meet will require cohesiveness that is growing every day.
“It’s more than just running together. It’s laughing, all that stuff. We’ve had a great attitude so far,” Anderson said. “I haven’t laughed this much in forever in our locker room. It’s a great feel going into the start of the season. ... Our new freshmen definitely bring in some humor. They are great girls. They keep us young for sure.
“We’ve got one [SEC title] under our belt and we know what we can do. It’s an exciting feeling to see the potential we do have."