Oct. 25, 2012
The runners will break from the starting line shortly after 10:00 Saturday morning at Blacksburg, Va., and the multi-colored wave will represent more than the start of the 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference Cross Country Championships.
The meet signals the start to the championship season for the conference's fall Olympic Sports. Over the next three weekends, ACC champions will not only be determined in men's and women's cross country but in field hockey, women's soccer and men's soccer as well.
"Championships have always been a cornerstone of the Atlantic Coast Conference," associate commissioner Kris Pierce said. "They have been a part of our mission statement since we were founded in 1953, and they are an integral part of what we do as a conference and for what our league stands."
The ACC's commitment to recognizing its champion in most sports via postseason competition has traditionally received the most attention during basketball season. But with the exception of volleyball, it is standard practice for the conference's Olympic sports as well.
"Our champion is determined through the Championship, unlike some other conferences that may determine it through regular-season play," Pierce said "The philosophy behind that is that you are building up to the championship, and you're all playing under the same conditions and on the same field. So ideally, every team is there for every sport and they're competing under the same conditions. The best team will win, and that should be our representative for the NCAA Championship."
Florida State women's cross country coach Karen Harvey, whose team will compete for its fifth straight ACC title on Saturday, stands in agreement.
"I definitely think it is great when you can just go head-to-head with all the best teams in the conference, and it's on that day and no one can argue whether you got lucky with game choices or anything," Harvey said. "This is head-to-head, and that's what cross country has always been. That in itself is exciting: Just to race everyone else on the same day, same course, same conditions."
Multi-day championships are usually held at one site, but the format for women's and men's soccer was revised prior to last season. Previously, four soccer championship quarterfinal matches were played on Wednesday, followed by the semifinals on Friday and the finals on Sunday.
Under the revised format, the ACC Women's Soccer Championship will open with quarterfinal matches at four campus sites on Sunday, Oct. 28. The semifinals will be on Friday, Nov. 2, at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., followed by the title match on Sunday, Nov. 4, at the same site.
For the ACC Men's Soccer Championship, the first-round game (between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds) will be played on Monday, Nov. 5, followed by four quarterfinal matches at campus sites on Tuesday, Nov. 6. The semifinals will then be held on Friday, Nov. 9, at the Soccerplex in Germantown, Md., which will also host the finals on Sunday, Nov. 11.
"For soccer, I think that has worked out well," Pierce said. "One thing our teams and our coaches struggled with was playing Wednesday, Friday, Sunday. That wasn't the same training pattern they were going to use the following week for NCAA play. That was difficult, and it was difficult for us from attendance purposes to get folks to the 12 o'clock and 2:30 (quarterfinal) games on Wednesday.
"By changing the format - even though I'm a traditionalist who likes things at one site because I feel that is part of the championship experience - going to the campus sites for the quarterfinals on Sundays for the women and on Tuesday for the men allow our teams to have a better chance, training-wise and preparation-wise, for the NCAA Championship. It puts them on that same pattern for the next few weeks."
"Clearly (the current format) helped us last year on the women's side by having three of the four teams in the College Cup, and it helped us on the men's side by winning the national championship," she said.
And in terms of NCAA preparation, no other conference in the nation can match the level of competition ACC teams face during fall Olympic sports Championships. That is particularly true in field hockey, according to Missy Meharg, head coach of two-time defending national champion Maryland.
"Given that ACC field hockey has historically held the highest power rating of any conference in the country, looking to win the ACC Championship is a top priority for Maryland every year," said Meharg, whose teams have claimed seven NCAA titles in all. "We take on one postseason tournament at a time and we honor the ACC opportunity. The level of tournament play has been equal to or higher than that of the NCAA final four in many years."
The ACC Women's Field Hockey Championship will be held Nov. 1, 2 and 4 at the University of North Carolina.
Though this weekend's ACC Cross Country Championship do not offer head-to-head meetings in the same sense as a team sport, FSU's Harvey said the desire to win runs just as hot.
"I don't know why, but I always feel there is a little more school pride involved with ACCs," Harvey said. "It's more spirit-felt than nationals. It's more about teamwork, about being the best in the conference. In nationals, there are so many other things going on there. It's not just about Florida State. We want to go up to Virginia Tech and defend our title, and that's what we're focusing on this week.
"The trophy is gorgeous - one of the coolest trophies I've ever seen - and the girls get an ACC ring. I know that's on their mind. They love that ring. And 10 student-athletes get to travel to the ACC Championship meet, and that's two more than get to go to Nationals. So it's a little different dynamic this week."
It will be busy time around the ACC office, but it is a routine with which Pierce and the ACC Championships staff have become accustomed.
"We have 22 (Olympic) sports right now, and we will have 23 next year when gymnastics comes on board," she said. "It is hard to imagine the preparation that goes into each. We do go in a lot of different areas, and it involves a lot of travel, usually on short notice. But in the end it is all worth it, because five trophies are going to be given out, and those teams are going to deserve them."