UA track coaches grateful for SEC

By: Bob Holt
Published: Saturday, August 15, 2020
Arkansas coach Lance Harter is shown during the NCAA South Regional cross country meet on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas coach Lance Harter is shown during the NCAA South Regional cross country meet on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE – The NCAA has canceled championships for fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the University of Arkansas is planning to compete in men’s and women’s cross country, soccer and volleyball.

“Our student-athletes and staff are continuing to prepare for fall competition and a SEC Championship opportunity in each of these sports,” Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said in statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The Razorbacks are defending NCAA and SEC champions in women’s cross country, and defending SEC champions in soccer. Arkansas also is a traditional power in men’s cross country, having won 25 of 29 SEC meets since joining the conference.

“Everything I hear from Hunter is, ‘Get ready to compete,’ ” said Lance Harter, coach of the Arkansas women’s cross country and track and field teams. “I’m like, ‘OK, we’ll have them ready.’ ”

Among the Power 5 conferences, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are continuing with plans to compete in fall sports, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 have opted out.

“Our soccer, volleyball and cross country student-athletes are working hard to prepare for their seasons and they have been diligent in taking personal health precautions and following protocols around COVID-19,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “We will support them in every way possible as we evaluate the impact of these cancellations on their fall sports seasons.”

In addition to canceling the cross country championships, the NCAA canceled its indoor track and field championships in March the day before the meet was scheduled to start, then canceled the entire outdoor season.

“This is the third time we’ve had the NCAA meet pulled out from underneath the guys,” said Chris Bucknam, the Razorbacks men’s cross country and track and field coach. “So the fact the SEC is one of the last conferences standing to compete this fall is awesome. I’m grateful for it.”

Harter said he appreciates how Yurachek approaches the fall sports in addition to football, which is the primary revenue producer for the athletic department along with men’s basketball.

“Hunter has been fantastic,” Harter said. “He’s very inclusive. We all know the importance of football, but Hunter always speaks about all the sports as equals.”

The SEC cross country championships are scheduled for Oct. 30 in Baton Rouge. The UA women’s team has won the past seven SEC titles.

“Our summit competition of the year will now be the SEC meet,” Harter said. “Our kids get really hyped up for it, because it means a lot to win an SEC title.”

Bucknam has led Arkansas to eight SEC cross country titles since 2010.

“I’ve said all along the SEC is a special championship,” Bucknam said. “I hope we have the opportunity to compete for it.”

The SEC is playing a conference-only football schedule, and Harter said it is his understanding that in other fall sports conference teams will be limited to competing against SEC, ACC and Big 12 members because of the medical protocols with regards to testing for the virus.

“Our testing standard is so high in the SEC, ACC and Big 12,” Harter said. “So the restrictions are designed to keep everybody safe.”

An SEC spokesman said the conference office is still reviewing its fall sports seasons after the NCAA’s announcement on Thursday of its championships being canceled.

“I appreciate the SEC and our university for making such a huge commitment to test and monitor our athletes to keep them safe,” Bucknam said. “We need to get back competing, even if it’s in a shortened season. We need a semblance of normalcy again.”

Harter said assuming that Arkansas can compete against only SEC, ACC and Big 12 teams, it’s likely the Chile Pepper Racing Festival — which has been held in Fayetteville for the past 31 years and was scheduled for Oct. 3 — will be canceled.

“The Chile Pepper is hanging on by a thread,” Harter said.

The conference limitations, if enforced, also mean Arkansas wouldn’t be allowed to play the University of Central Arkansas in volleyball in Conway this fall as previously scheduled.

The NCAA Board of Governors also is going to meet next week to decide whether to approve a proposal that would allow fall sports teams to compete in less than 50% of their regularly scheduled competitions and have the athletes retain that season of eligibility for the future.

Harter said if the proposal is approved, the Razorbacks could run in up to three meets — including the SEC championships — without having it count against their eligibility.

“Our kids want to run,” Harter said. “They’re chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to race.

“As I tell the kids, ‘The two hours you’re with me, you might be the safest you’ll be all day. But the other 22 hours, I’m not going to live with you, so you have to be sure and make good decisions.’ “

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