NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Texas A&M cross country will contest its first-ever SEC Championship meet this Friday at the Percy Warner Park course as the women race over a 6,000-meter distance and the men traverse an 8,000-meter course. Race times are 10 a.m. for the women and 11 a.m. for the men.
"This is a great opportunity for our teams," said Aggie assistant coach Wendel McRaven. "Our guys have been talking about this meet ever since it was announced that we would be joining the SEC. Competing for the first SEC championship for any Aggie team will make this opportunity that much more special."
A&M senior Henry Lelei leads an Aggie men's squad that is currently ranked No. 29 in the nation. After winning the 2010 NJCAA title while at Central Arizona, Lelei placed ninth in the 2011 NCAA Cross Country Championships last fall and finished fourth in the 2012 NCAA Outdoor steeplechase in the spring.
Lelei, who has earned SEC Runner of the Week honors in each of the three meets he has run this season, leads the conference at three different race distances - 6,000 meters (16:25), 5 miles (23:36) and 8,000 meters (23:26).
Last season Lelei placed third in the Big 12 conference meet, earning the top newcomer award in addition to All-Big 12 honors, as the Aggies finished fourth as a team. Lelei went on to win the NCAA South Central region title while A&M finished second as a team to earn an automatic qualification to the NCAA Championship field.
As one of the favorites to claim the SEC men's individual title, Lelei will face a challenge from defending SEC champion Eric Fernandez of Arkansas along with his Razorback teammates Solomon Haile and Kemoy Campbell.
A strong top three up front will serve No. 9 Arkansas well in attempting to win a third consecutive team title. Since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in fall of 1991 they have claimed 19 men's cross country team titles, including a run of 17 consecutive titles from 1991 to 2007. They will be seeking a 20th SEC cross country title this weekend.
Challengers to the men's team title include No. 28 Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida and Missouri. While each school has its key leading runner, the difference between those teams will likely come down to who steps up as the fourth and fifth runners on each squad.
The Aggie men return six of their top seven finishers from last year's conference meet. Following Lelei are MacLean O'Donnell, James Hodges, Stephen Curry, Isaac Spencer, and C.J. Brown.
"The key for our men's team is pretty simple," noted McRaven. "Henry needs to just continue to take care of business at the front and we need to close down the gap from our second through fifth, sixth runners.
"Hodges and Curry have been very consistent this year. CJ Brown has gradually been closing the gap. And, we know that Isaac Spencer and MacLean O'Donnell are both capable of being anywhere in our top five. Micah Dettmer has worked hard this year to be in that mix as well. We have a pretty interchangeable group in our runners from two through seven just depending who is ready to take the reins. They know what they are capable of doing and they are an experienced group."
Hodges has been the second A&M runner behind Lelei in recent meets, placing 18th and 70th at Notre Dame and Wisconsin. Curry has finished as the third Aggie runner in three meets, placing eighth at Rice, 44th at Notre Dame and 94th at Wisconsin.
Last season in the Big 12 race O'Donnell finished 21st overall as the third Aggie with Hodges 28th as the fourth A&M runner while Curry was the fifth scorer in 36th place. O'Donnell, who has been the sixth (Notre Dame) and seventh (Wisconsin) Aggie in recent outings, will need a return to the level he displayed last season for A&M to have a chance at challenging Arkansas for the team title this weekend.
The Aggie women were sixth a year ago in the ten-team Big 12, led by a 12th place finish from Natosha Rogers, who has not competed in cross country for A&M this fall. Returning this season are five runners who competed at the conference meet last season. That group includes Hillary Montgomery, Shawn Dalglish, Tara Upshaw, Grace Fletcher and Gabby Salazar.
Two runners who have led the Aggies this season, but didn't run at conference a year ago, include Sophie Blake and Amanda Jenkins. Blake paced the A&M squad during the Baylor and Rice meets, over 4,000-meters, while Jenkins has led the squad over 6,000-meters at Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
"On the women's side we need to see Jenkins, Blake and Montgomery working together as much as possible early in the race," said McRaven. "Upshaw has had a few rough patches this year, but if she can relax and run like she is capable she can be right there as well.
"Dalglish, Salazar and Fletcher running strong through the second half of the race will be huge for us. I'm also excited to see Heather Sterling's continued growth. She earned her spot on the travel squad with her win at Houston Baptist and could be a wild-card for us."
Vanderbilt returns as the women's team champion, but enters the conference meet ranked No. 28. Arkansas is the top ranked women's squad at No. 12 while Florida is the third nationally ranked SEC team at No. 30. The Razorbacks enjoyed a run of three straight titles from 2006 to 2008 while the Gators won a pair in 2009 and 2010.