Right out of the blocks every year, University of South Florida cross-country coach Bob Braman says the only big meet is the regional. That's when a team will or won't qualify for the nationals. But if you press him, Braman will admit the Sun Belt Conference meet is a close second.
And why not?
The Bulls, who chased Western Kentucky to the finish line in each of Braman's first three years, are the two-time defending champs. Last year, USF parlayed the conference title into a fourth-place regional finish and the program's first trip to the 22-team national meet.
This year's conference championship is Saturday at Charlotte, N.C., but the Bulls aren't the favorites. Neither is traditionally strong Western Kentucky.
Say hello to South Alabama.
The Jaguars, who have finished a distant third in each of the last five years, are ranked No. 14 in the most recent NCAA coaches' poll and recently ran just behind No. 4 Tennessee and No. 5 Arizona.
"It's nice to be in a position to be considered the favorite, but quite honestly, with the job Bob has done at South Florida the last few years and the job Curtiss Long has done at Western, that's a hard tradition to buck," said South Alabama coach Bruce Coldsmith.
"We stress the conference meet. It's our first goal. And I'm pretty optimistic we can break out of third place."
But again, Braman isn't about to let his runners stare off to the horizon and the regional meet Nov. 10.
"We're in a position to make it three in a row, and I'd like to keep the streak going," Braman said. "Our best race of the year the last three years has been conference. And if we run like we did last year, it'll get us going for the regional."
The Bulls are fresh off a resounding win in the Florida Intercollegiate Championships at USF last Friday, beating Santa Fe Community College 16-62. Chris Payne was first, Robin Rogers second, Robbie Deakin third and Paul Burnett fourth.
"We'll be ready for conference," Braman said. "It is important to us. But I know we're going to have run our best race of the year."
USF has two things in its favor: Everyone is healthy and the Bulls have already run once on the course, winning the North Carolina-Charlotte Invitational last month.
Stalking a title: If you listen to some Sun Belt coaches, the USF women's cross-country team just might win its first conference championship this weekend.
"I see them as a strong favorite," Coldsmith said. "That pack they have is very tough. I can see South Florida having five in the top 10."
While USF probably doesn't have a runner who'll win the race, the team has a group of runners who remain closer than cars on the Howard Frankland Bridge at rush hour.
Look no further than last week's Florida Intercollegiate Championship. Florida beat USF 35-52, boasting three of the top four finishers including the top two.
But then there was USF's pack: Monica Scarborough (sixth); Renee Cork (eighth); Alison Titcomb (ninth); Jennifer Hoke (14th); Cindy Wulf (15th) and Cindy Parliament (19th).
"We're really coming on," Braman said. "They've never won a title of any kind and they've always been in the men's shadow. But this year's team has a real chance."
The goal might be within reach, if : USF soccer coach Jay Miller is trying not to harp on the obvious, but it's not easy.
If the Bulls (10-2-2 overall and 3-1-1 in the Sun Belt) can win their last three regular-season games (all at home), they have a shot at making the national tournament.
If they stumble, especially against conference foes Western Kentucky (9-5-2, 2-2) Friday at 4 p.m. or against North Carolina-Charlotte in the season finale Nov. 3, well "It's absolutely imperative for us to win the Sun Belt Conference to be considered for a bid," Miller said. "It's now T-minus three (games) and counting."
Currently, Old Dominion is 4-1-1 in the conference, followed by UNC-C at 4-1-0, South Alabama at 4-2-1 and USF. The Bulls tied ODU 1-1 last Friday in Norfolk, Va., so they could end in a tie. Meanwhile, UNC-C must still play both ODU and USF.
"We played very well last weekend," Miller said of the tie and a 1-0 win against Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday. "In fact, we played our best defense of the year against VCU, which was very encouraging."
After all, USF had lost to Florida International 5-3 just prior to the swing through Virginia. And in the wake of that stunning loss, Miller said the team grew more conscious of defending with everyone getting back to help out. The Bulls weren't going to live _ or die _ with just the four defenders and goalkeeper Jeff Gopsill.
"We put more emphasis on defense," Miller said. "We were living on the edge, going forward and trying to score so much. We're not sitting back, but we're going to be more aware of defending. We can't afford any more losses."
The goal might be within reach, Part II: Although her young team has struggled to be consistent most of the season, USF volleyball coach Debbie Richardson said the Bulls can still win the conference and earn a postseason bid.
Does this sound familiar?
While the conference soccer champ isn't assured of anything, the Sun Belt volleyball champion automatically qualifies for the 20-team Women's Invitational Volleyball Championship at the University of Tennessee.
USF (13-17), which plays host to Central Florida today at 7:30 p.m., is the four-time defending Sun Belt champion and participated in the WIVC last year. Despite its losing record, Richardson said her team showed notable progress last weekend in the South Florida Showcase at USF.
The Bulls rallied to beat North Carolina, 3-15, 15-8, 14-16, 15-12, 15-11, on Friday and then played nationally regarded Syracuse tough on Saturday, losing 15-10, 15-7, 9-15 and 15-2. Freshman Marie Midland was named to the all-tournament team.
"The WIVC is very much in sight and the way to get there is to win the conference," Richardson said. "We've shown we can rise to the occasion in our tougher matches."
Based on the conference fall tournament two weeks ago, USF will be the third seed in the conference tournament at Richmond, Va., next month. Alabama-Birmingham will be No. 1 and Western Kentucky No. 2.