Men’s CC Reloading For SEC Title Repeat
Arkansas’ men’s cross country team finished first last year in the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA Regional before a tenth-place finish in the NCAA’s.
Despite losing three of their top five runners, No. 15 Arkansas looks to continue its success at the SEC Championship in two weeks.
“Every day, we’re thinking about the SEC. We plan on coming back with a trophy,” junior Eric Fernandez said.
Fernandez, an All-SEC performer in track and cross country, has been the team’s first place finisher in both of the team’s events this season.
“Thus far, I’ve been our frontrunner, which I enjoy,” Fernandez said. “Coach expects me to maintain that position in the field and be with the leaders. And then I myself personally have high goals for the season as a whole. So within those goals I expect to be one of the top finishers in every race.”
Fernandez and senior captain Duncan Phillips are the team’s top returners after Dorian Ulrey and Lane Boyer graduated last year and junior Solomon Haile redshirted this season due to a torn meniscus.
“The general expectation for all of us is just to do our best and put our best foot forward for the team as a whole,” Fernandez said. “I’m always joking with Solomon that I miss having him on my shoulder in workouts and races. I don’t have him to take the lead and I’m just counting on different guys now.”
This season, Fernandez and Phillips have led the team to a first-place finish at the Arkansas Invitational and fifth place at the Cowboy Jamboree.
“As coaches, we always want our athletes in our team to want to fill the gap and I think that’s what this team has done,” coach Chris Bucknam said. “We’ve noticed the drop-off a little bit, there’s no question. But we also expect a year of improvement from our kids that are returning, so hopefully we can fill that gap.”
The team has taken this and turned it into a positive response by putting forth extra effort to fill the gaps, Fernandez said. So far, the progression of the runners has translated to success in competition.
“You could say positives about everyone right now,” Fernandez said. “You look at anybody from our freshmen to our upperclassmen, and everyone’s just really excelling beyond what we’ve done before, which is really cool to see.”
Phillips, who was a non-factor in cross country in previous years, was the second Arkansas runner to finish at OSU. Freshman Patrick Rono earned SEC Freshman of the Week also with his performance at OSU.
“They’re doing a great job. They look as fit as I’ve ever seen them,” Bucknam said. ”You expect those kind of kids to step up and start to make an impact on your program, and they’re doing that.”
Fernandez credits the team’s progress to tough training cycles and the opportunity to train more after the MSSU Stampede was cancelled.
“The results of our workouts now compared to earlier in the season are actually probably better than we expected. So at this point, we’re looking good coming into the championship part after this,” Fernandez said.
While winning the SEC Championship is a key goal for the team, Bucknam is not overlooking the Chile Pepper Festival this weekend.
“We need to have a good race this weekend. This is where our focus is right now,” Bucknam said. “We can’t take a step back; we have to keep moving forward. That’s what’s really key for our SEC Championship—to take this penultimate meet and have a good one, and focus on that.”