Arkansas women can't catch speedy Gators

Arkansas runners Sydney Thorvaldson (left) and Paityn Noe compete at the SEC Cross Championships on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (Photo by Shawn Price/Arkansas Athletics)

Coach Will Palmer led the Florida women’s cross country team to its first SEC championship since 2012, but won his second in a row.

Palmer was Alabama’s coach last year when the Crimson Tide won their first SEC title since 1987.

The University of Arkansas, which leads the SEC with 22 cross country championships, finished second to Palmer’s team for the second consecutive year.

Florida won Friday’s meet in Columbia, S.C., with 49 points and the Razorbacks were second with 59.

Arkansas’ total would have been good enough to win three of the previous 13 SEC titles.

“I’m very proud of our performance,” said Megan Elliott, who is in her first year as an Arkansas assistant coach for cross country and track and field and leads the distance runners after being director of operations since 2014. “I think from top to bottom we competed really hard and executed the plan.

“We had Florida on their heels for a while. They’re a more veteran group than our group, so I’m very impressed with the way our athletes rose to the challenge. I think we really gave it all we had today.”

Based on the runners’ places at the midway point of the 6,000-meter race, Florida led with 54 points and Arkansas was second with 58.

“We knew Arkansas was going to run really, really well, and they did,” Palmer said in an interview with the SEC Network. “Our women were ready for that. I think kudos go to Arkansas. They ran a hell of a race.”

Florida, ranked No. 7 nationally, was led by junior Parker Valby, won her second consecutive SEC title in 18 minutes, 37.5 seconds.

Freshman Paityn Noe led No. 11 Arkansas with a fifth-place finish in 19:43.7.

“Paityn ran brilliant for us,” Elliott said. “The course starts downhill, so it’s fast, and that can be intimidating, especially for a younger runner. But Paityn just executed really well. Very impressed with her.”

Razorbacks sophomore Sydney Thorvaldson finished sixth in 19:49.8.

“I think that’s a great race for Sydney,” Elliott said. “She’s coming around at the right time. She’s sharpening up and things are really starting to click for her.”

Also scoring for Arkansa were senior Laura Taborda (12th in 20:04.8) and sophomores Mia Cochran (16th in 20:12.3) and Mary Ellen Eudaly (20th in 20:29.5).

It was the Razorbacks’ first SEC meet without Lance Harter, their cross country and track and field coach for 33 years who retired in June.

Chris Johnson, whose specialty is coaching sprinters and hurdlers, was promoted from his assistant’s position to replace Harter and he put Elliott in charge of the distance runners.

“I think Megan did a fantastic job getting our kids prepared to do their best at the SEC meet,” Johnson said. “We lost some great runners from last year like Lauren Gregory and Isabel Van Camp, and to put a team together like this with their youthfulness, and for them to go out and compete like Razorbacks, you can’t be anything but proud of that.

“Obviously Florida is pretty high-powered and they did a good job of executing, but I think our ladies ran with some perseverance and some grit and some hunger. So I’m very, very proud of their efforts.”

Elliott was an All-American distance runner for Harter before joining the Arkansas staff.

“I’ve been in this position in the backup role, and now it was riding on me,” Elliott said of her SEC coaching debut. “I followed in Coach Harter’s footsteps in being confident in what I’m asking the girls to do. Just believing in them I think is the most important thing.

“We came up a little short, but I can’t be upset. We had a good run. It’s exciting for the future.”