The women's cross country team is hoping a strong finish at the NCAA South Region on Friday will propel it into the NCAA Championships scheduled later this month in Wisconsin.
The Commodores, led by redshirt junior Sara Tsai, want to earn a top-five team result on Florida State's Apalachee Regional Park layout that has hosted multiple NCAA regionals since 2012.
The Commodores have enjoyed plenty of success at recent regionals held on the FSU course. In 2014, the Commodores claimed the NCAA South Region title by placing five runners inside the overall top-15. In 2016, the Commodores earned a third-place team result. In 2012, the Commodores finished second topped by a ninth-place individual result by Kristen Findley.
Vanderbilt head coach Steve Keith said his squad enters the meet off two weeks of solid preparation since the Southeastern Conference Championships.
"I'm excited to see how we perform in Tallahassee," Keith said. "An NCAA berth is not out of our reach but it will take a total team effort. A tight grouping of runners 3-5 is essential for a good team finish.
"We've enjoyed some recent history on the FSU course and the entire team has been training positively leading to the regionals. A top five (result) is possible and a good finish also sets the tone for next year," Keith added.
The South Regional, which features a 6-kilometer distance, will start at 7:30 a.m. CT. The Commodores will face a field of more than 250 runners from schools located in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Vanderbilt is looking to make its first appearance at the NCAA Championships since 2015. The Commodores advanced to the nationals for five consecutive years from 2011-15. Last year, they finished eighth at the regional meet.
The Commodore lineup will include Tsai, senior Devon Grisbaum, juniors Caroline Pietrzyk and Mailin Struck, sophomores Anna Grace Morgan and Gillian Mortimer, and freshmen Grace Jensen, Alena Sapienza-Wright and Haley Walker.
Tsai, who topped the Commodores at the recent SEC Championships, has enjoyed success running the FSU course. In 2016, Tsai earned an at-large berth into the NCAA Championships by finishing fifth individually.
Tsai has been solid all season. After missing the entire 2017 campaign, she has been Vanderbilt's top finisher at five meets this fall. Besides her impressive SEC result, Tsai has run second overall at the Auburn Invitational, 11th at the Commodore Classic and 13th at the Arturo Barrios Invitational in College Station, Texas.
Walker, Sapienza-Wright and Jensen were in Vanderbilt's top-five at the SEC Championships. Pietrzyk joined the three freshmen among the teams' top five runners at the conference meet.