FAYETTEVILLE - Texas A&M cross country returns to action in postseason racing at the NCAA South Central region meet hosted by Arkansas at the Agri Park on Friday, November 9. The Aggie men enter the contest ranked No. 29 in the nation and No. 3 among the South Central region while the A&M women rank No. 5 in the region.
The top two teams in each race earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Championship field from each of the nine regions. After the 18 teams earning automatic berths are determined, the rest of the 31 team field is filled in by at-large berths based on region finish along with season performances. The top four individuals not associated with teams advancing to the NCAA Championship also qualify.
"This is another great opportunity for us," said Texas A&M assistant coach Wendel McRaven. "Henry comes in as the defending champion and our team as the returning runner-up. I am confident that Henry will be right in the hunt to defend his title. Our team is right where we were at this time last year.
"In the region rankings we are the third place team which is exactly where we sat last year heading into the regional. We are going to go out and compete and give ourselves the best chance we can to advance to the national meet. As a team, we have been running better each time out. We just need to go out and run our race."
The Texas A&M men also move up in distance for the region meet, covering a course of 10,000 meters, while the Aggie women remain at the 6,000-meter distance used in the conference meet. The women race first at 11 a.m. with the men scheduled to start at 12:15 p.m.
Henry Lelei, fresh off his victory at the SEC Championships and being named SEC Runner of the Year, enters the South Central contest as the defending individual champion. Last season Lelei covered the rolling course in Waco with a winning time of 30:09.4 and then went on to place ninth at the national meet.
Behind Lelei's win a year ago the Aggies placed second with a nine-point edge over Arkansas to earn automatic qualification to the NCAA Championships, where A&M placed 18th in team scoring.
In the men's South Central team race this season No. 5 Texas and No. 10 Arkansas are favored for the top two places while Texas A&M and McNeese State are the third and fourth ranked teams in the region.
Arkansas won the SEC team title with 35 points while Texas finished second to No. 1 Oklahoma State (24-56) in the Big 12. McNeese claimed the Southland title with a score of 25 points over host Lamar (66). The Aggies tied for third in the SEC with 80 points.
Joining Lelei for a return venture at the South Central region meet are five other Aggies who made up the seven-man squad. The group includes MacLean O'Donnell and James Hodges, who finished 10th and 11th last fall, along with Stephen Curry (23rd), Isaac Spencer (24th) and C.J. Brown (28th).
The Aggie women placed third in the region meet last season with a score of 90 points, finishing behind Arkansas (49) and Texas (69). Natosha Rogers finished fifth individually to earn a qualifying spot in the NCAA Championship field.
"The women have really been knocking on the door all year long in regards to running a great team race," noted McRaven. "We have seen some new people step up this fall and we have a bunch of young ladies who have shown flashes of some big things.
"I think they have sometimes sold themselves short as to how good they can be. My challenge to the women is for them to give themselves the freedom to succeed. If they do that, I think they will step it up to another level on Friday."
Hillary Montgomery is the top returning A&M runner on the women's side after placing 20th a year ago. Also returning from last season are Tara Upshaw (25th) and Shawn Dalglish (49th). Amanda Jenkins, who has led the Aggie crew the last three meets, makes the trek to the region meet along with Sophie Blake, Grace Fletcher and Gabby Salazar.
Arkansas women, ranked No. 12 in the nation, and Texas, ranked No. 22, are the top two women's teams in the South Central region with SMU and LSU ranked third and fourth in the region.