The message that Sean Graham and Hakon DeVries, UK's men's and women's cross country coaches, have stressed to the Wildcats is the importance of running and working together. Even with Cally Macumber -- one of three Wildcats to qualify for the NCAA Championships last season and the defending regional champion -- on the roster, it's a team-first attitude.
That will definitely be the case as UK returns to the NCAA Southeast Regional Friday in Charlottesville, Va.
At last week's SEC Championship, that teamwork and preparation throughout the season paid off in the form of a third-place finish for the women and a No. 5 finish from the men. Both were improvements over last year's finish, the first year under head coach Edrick Floreal.
"Throughout the season we try to hammer home the point of working together in races," DeVries said of his women's squad. "I think that element really showed up at SECs. The team worked together well and overcame some adversity. Overall, we're building and this Friday hopefully will be even more of a team effort then it was at SECs two weeks ago."
The key is to run with a teammate, and feed off of each other. Practices and races earlier in the season were vital to determine who runs best with whom. Graham, in his first season in Lexington with the UK men, has seen the growth and improvement this season as he has stressed the team approach since day one.
"It's improved throughout the season and benefited us at SECs," Graham said. "The guys are figuring out who they're compatible with, and how that benefits us as a team. I think it helps that we train with this mentality for the entire season. They have a demeanor of 'how am I doing, how am I competing to help the team be better.' The mentality that they need to work really hard to get the team better has hit home, especially after a good performance at SECs."
With any team sport, there are certain individuals who excel beyond the rest, and cross country is undoubtedly no exception. For Kentucky, the presence of Macumber at the front of the pack is the ultimate distraction for her teammates, not something that destroys that important team philosophy.
With the Wildcats' team-first approach, Macumber's success just helps take the pressure off her teammates and helps them run. It's the perfect scenario for the UK women, especially since all Macumber cares about is the team.
"Cally is all about the team first, she wants to team to make NCAAs so badly, and would trade any individual performance for that," DeVries said. "For her to take some of the spotlight and pressure on herself has been great for the team and allowed them to really develop throughout the year."
Going into the SEC Championships, the goal was to improve off of last season's conference championship performance. With a team-first mindset, it was mission accomplished: two spots higher for the men, one for the women. Now, the focus has been to keep the momentum going. As the Wildcats see the payoff from their training, the last two weeks have come together.
"The last two weeks have been great," DeVries said. "The results of SECs fired up the team even more to get them to realize their full potential as a team. Us as coaches have seen it for a while, but until you have that breakout performance, it really changed the attitude and demeanor of the group."
"It's been really good," Graham added. "It's basically just sharpening. All the real work was done over the summer and early in the season. Now that we've put that work in, the last two weeks have been just getting ready for Friday. Everything's come together well."
Friday in Charlottesville, the Wildcats will look to take everything they've focused on and prepared for to the course. The men's 10,000 meter race begins at noon, ET, while the women leave the starting line at 1:15 p.m. for a six-kilometer race.
The top two teams and top four individuals at each of the nine regional sites will automatically advance to the NCAA Championships to be held in Terre Haute, Ind., on Saturday, Nov. 23. Thirteen teams will also earn at-large bids, to be announced on Saturday, Nov. 16.