The wait is over for Bulls

The University of South Florida’s cross country teams have waited all season for this upcoming weekend. When the season began on Aug. 30, the Bulls set out to achieve one goal – a conference championship.

The entire season rests on this Saturday’s race when the Bulls travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., for the Conference USA Championship.

USF coach Greg Thiel said his teams are ready for the conference meet, and all the runners understand that this race will make or break the season.

“This is the week we’ve been talking about all year,” Thiel said. “The outlook looks great. The teams are focused, excited and ready to run. It boils down to commitment and execution, and I think we’re ready.”

The Bulls prepared all season using the pyramid plan, a step-by-step conditioning process to help get in top running form. The plan was designed so the Bulls could use each race throughout the season as a building block, improving each time out in order to reach the top. The top is a conference championship.

Thiel said the plan has worked great because all the runners are healthy and have steadily improved their running times throughout the year. The plan also has put the Bulls in a position to achieve their goal.

Thiel credits assistant Rita Arndt for the conditioning program she used for the runners this year and her ability to execute the program to receive maximum results. Several Bulls’ runners posted personal best times in the final tuneup race Oct. 19 at the Auburn Invitational.

“Rita has done an excellent job, not only getting them physically prepared to run the meets, but also keeping them healthy throughout the season,” Thiel said.

Both teams hope to bring home a conference title, but the women’s team has a more realistic shot of obtaining the goal.

The women have established some great momentum heading into this weekend behind the superb running of sophomore standout Christa Benton. But, the 2001 C-USA Freshman of the Year must have the support of her teammates, especially seniors Cori Kill and Kristy Fuller, if the Bulls have a chance to unseat 2001 C-USA champs Marquette.

Marquette returns all of its runners from last year’s championship squad, but Thiel believes the women are capable of winning the race.

“Obviously, going in (to the race) we’re No. 2 on paper,” Thiel said. “I think they’re ready to step it up. We’ve challenged them to step up, and I think they’re ready for the challenge.”

If the women should fail to become conference champs, Thiel said it will be disappointing, but his team would remain proud of its accomplishments this season.

“If we don’t win conference, there won’t be any head-hanging,” Thiel said.

The men’s team will face a tougher challenge than the women to bring home a conference title, partly due to the absence of a strong and experienced fifth runner. The men have struggled all season without a reliable fifth man, but yet they’ve still managed to be competitive.

The Bulls have been paced by the strong individual effort of fifth-year senior Andrew Smith, who looks to end his career with an individual championship. But, in order for the men’s team to be competitive, the other members must step it up a notch and give Smith some support.

Freshman Sean Burris and junior Adam Chumbley have come on strong in the previous weeks, but a total team effort is needed for the men to have a good race.

The men enter the conference race as underdogs due to their 11th-place finish last year and the lack of collegiate experience of some runners this year. The low expectations could allow them to run a more relaxed race because they don’t have to deal with a lot of pressure.

Thiel said this could definitely help the younger runners, particularly the freshmen, who will run in their first conference championship race.

“It helps them to just be out there and run a competitive race,” Thiel said. “It will be a good year to go out there and gain the experience.”

But, even without the lack of experience, Thiel said the men still have some high goals to achieve this weekend.

“They want to finish in the top three, and I think they can do it,” Thiel said. “In any event, the men will be champions in their way. They may not walk away with a trophy, but we can walk away proud in our own right.”

Whatever happens Saturday, it won’t end the Bulls’ season. The Bulls still have one more guaranteed race, Nov. 16 in Knoxville, Tenn. The NCAA Regional meet is open to all schools in the South region, with the top two teams advancing to the NCAA Championships.

Thiel said his teams are focused solely on the conference race Saturday, and that the region meet is very different from the conference meet.

“It’s a whole different ball of wax,” Thiel said. “There are different teams and different things we need to accomplish.

“Our finish in the conference race won’t determine what needs to be done at the region meet.”