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Work Not Done for SEC Champion Rebel Men’s Cross Country

Ole Miss men’s cross country team wins SEC crown. Photo courtesy of Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

When it was officially announced that Ole Miss had won its first SEC title in men’s cross country – the first for the entire Rebel cross country and track program, for that matter – Ryan Vanhoy let the moment wash over him and celebrated with his team, dropping into a crouch in awe that it had finally happened.

A long road has led to that moment since Vanhoy first arrived in Oxford, and for those close to the program, it’s hard not to get emotional. He’s helped usher in a golden age for distance running on both the men’s and women’s side of competition, but it’s been the Rebel men who have continuously felt the heartbreak of defeat in search of that first conference crown.

Talented Rebels like Robert Domanic, Craig Engels, MJ Erb, Welsey Gallagher, Sean Tobin and many others helped lay down the foundation and were involved in the program’s highest moment to date – the fourth-place podium finish at the 2016 NCAA Championships – but it was that SEC trophy that seemed just out of grasp in close losses to Arkansas in 2014 and 2016.

With that footing as a base, it was a new group of young, energized and highly-touted Rebels like Waleed Suliman and Cade Bethmann among others that ended up breaking through the mold on Friday, snapping Arkansas’ eight-year winning streak and becoming the first school not named Arkansas or Alabama to win an SEC men’s title since Tennessee did in 1990 – when Vanhoy was three years old.

All of that weight was present at the finish line with his team, a momentary lapse of stoicism for the sixth-year Rebel coach. Not much later, though, he calmly reminded both of his teams that this is far from the end of this season, as Ole Miss still has its sights set on high finishes at both the NCAA South Regional and the NCAA Championships.

At a gathering of the entire Ole Miss track & field team in the Manning Center later that evening back in Oxford, head coach Connie Price-Smith shared similar sentiments about the program as a whole. As did sport administrator and Senior Associate A.D. for Health and Sports Performance Shannon Singletary, as well as Deputy A.D. Lynnette Johnson.

The message was clear: this is the first, but not the last SEC title coming this way. Enjoy this now, but tomorrow it’s back to work.

It’s a moment all involved with the Rebel track and cross country teams hope will serve as a catalyst moving forward. Under Price-Smith, Ole Miss is starting to break through as a team in the ultra-competitive SEC, and not just in cross country. The Rebels have started to make some noise on the track, most recently this past outdoor season where the Ole Miss women recorded the highest team finish at the SEC Outdoor meet in program history and were in title contention heading into the 4×400-meter relay.

That doesn’t even include all the success Ole Miss has had on the track nationally in the last three years either with four NCAA titles and several of the top team finishes in school history.

The national stage is what now occupies the focus of Vanhoy and the Rebel men and women, and under his direction, they have thrived there. Ole Miss is just one of eight schools to place both its men’s and women’s cross country teams within the top-25 at the NCAA Championships in each of the last two seasons, joining national powerhouses Arkansas, BYU, Colorado, Michigan State, NC State, Oregon and Stanford.

Getting back to work following the conference meet has been the bread-and-butter for Ole Miss in this new era. The Rebel men have gone on to punch their ticket to the national meet in each of the last four years, winning South Region titles in 2014 and 2016, while the Rebel women will be looking for their third straight trip to nationals and their second consecutive South Region title after winning their first in program history last fall.

Ole Miss will have its work cut out in Tallahassee for the NCAA South Regional on Nov. 9, but with a little extra momentum than normal.

“It’s definitely an exciting time to be an Ole Miss Rebel,” Vanhoy said following the win on Friday. “We talked about that, too. The hardest championship is always the first. You don’t know how to win until you win. Now that we’ve gotten one under our belts and we’ve got this experience, we know what it feels like to win and what it feels like to actually be able to win. I think this will be a big difference-maker as this group continues on into the future.”

Courtesy of Ole Miss Sports

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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