The Lady Vols capped a historic season last weekend with a sixth place finish at the 2023 NCAA Cross Country Championships after returning to the national rankings for the first time since 2009 – and a runner named Ashley Jones with a backstory that is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring had a pivotal role in the resurgence.
Sean Carlson, the head coach and director of cross country/distance, just completed his second season at Tennessee and has turned around the women’s cross country program in record time. The national championships were held Nov. 18 at Panorama Farms in Charlottesville, Virginia – and it was the first appearance for the Lady Vols at the national meet since 2006 and the program’s best performance since also finishing sixth in 1989. Tennessee got to the national championships by winning the program’s first region title since 2005 after being ranked sixth in that region.
“This is just a massive step for our program,” Carlson said. “To do it so soon, I think we are ahead of schedule which is always a nice spot to be in.”
During the season, the Lady Vols landed at No. 23 in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCA) poll, the first national ranking since 2009 and the highest mark since 2006. By the time the team reached Charlottesville, the Lady Vols were No. 11 in the country.
“It has been a pretty cool journey,” Carlson said. “We got a whole new group of young (runners) and some older (runners) that have helped lead the way and they just bought into each other and ran as a family.”
One of the newcomers is Jones, a senior from Castle Pines, Colorado, who transferred to Tennessee from High Point University in North Carolina.
Her parents, twin sister and two brothers lived an idyllic family life in Southern California and then Colorado just south of Denver. Her father, Damian, died unexpectedly after having a heart attack and then wrecking his truck while trying to get to the hospital. Jones, who was at soccer practice with her father that day and rode with him in the truck, was just 14 years old.
Three months later, trying to find some space to breathe and emerge from the crush of mourning, the family accepted an invitation for a weekend in a cabin near Steamboat Springs to hike and ride dirt bikes and ATVs. Jones was a passenger on an ATV that took a curve too fast and flipped. The impact nearly detached her right arm, and Jones could have bled to death in the woods. Her arm had to be amputated at a hospital that same night.
Runner’s World wrote a detailed story in 2020 about her accident and journey to recovery that can be read HERE.
It can’t be overstated how difficult it is to be an elite runner while competing with one arm for reasons from propulsion to balance to torso rotation. But Jones managed to persevere and then thrive. Distance running is painful for any athlete. Elite runners learn to mentally push through pain that would stop most people. Distance running with one arm amplifies all of the pain.
In Charlottesville, Jones led the way for Tennessee with a time of 20:07.1 in the 6K. Freshman Jillian Candelino finished at 20:29.6; junior Rachel Sutliff, 20:30.2; freshman Caroline Lyerly, 20:37.4; and freshman Jessie Secor, 20:46.1.
The cumulative total placed Tennessee sixth in a field of 31 college teams – just below Florida and one place above Alabama. NC State claimed the national title crown. A 6K is 3.73 miles with Jones averaging under 5.5-minutes per mile.
Jones appeared on Tennessee’s “Everything Orange” podcast during the cross country season and shared her story and that of her family.
“My faith has been something that even when everything was shaken and things that you knew were no longer what you knew, the Lord was steady and will continue to stay steady, and that’s been the resounding echo of life,” Jones said on the podcast.
The interview can be watched in its entirety HERE or below. Jones also discusses the support she received from Carlson and the team. Jones intends to remain at Tennessee to earn a master’s degree and use her remaining eligibility. Watch to the end of the video for the hot takes of coffee shops in Knoxville and to woo or not when singing “Rocky Top.”
Jones also made it clear that she never considered giving up sports. She played soccer after losing her arm, but a serious knee injury and painful collisions to her shoulder derailed those plans. She switched to triathlons and then joined the track team at her high school and embraced distance running.
“There were never a question that I would not return to sports,” she said. “I am grateful to be doing what I’m doing. I would just tell people it can be done. There are hard days, but then there are really brilliant, amazing days.”
BASKETBALL: No. 19 Tennessee has started 3-1 this season – the one loss was by one point at No. 13 Florida State – but faces the toughest stretch so far with four games against ranked teams.
The first two are at the Elevance Health Women’s Fort Myers Tip-off in Florida against No. 21 Indiana on Thanksgiving evening followed by No. 22 Oklahoma on Saturday, Nov. 25.
The next two are both at home against No. 17 Notre Dame on Nov. 29 and No. 15 Ohio State on Dec. 3. The stretch comes when the injury list got a little longer.
Three players missed Sunday’s 100-73 win over Troy – and it’s not known yet if the team will be at full strength for the Thanksgiving tournament. Avery Strickland was sidelined due to concussion protocol, and Jasmine Powell had a brace on her right wrist and wasn’t in uniform. Rickea Jackson hasn’t played since the Florida State game and is wearing a boot on her right foot.
The team, wearing sweats and hoodies, departed Knoxville on Tuesday amid gray and rainy skies and touched down in Florida in sunshine and 85 degrees.
The Lady Vols can score – even with two regular starters out Sunday, Tennessee put up 100 points – but the defense is very much a work in progress. If Powell is cleared, she can be a boost on that end in Florida.
Coach Kellie Harper likes to challenge her team before SEC play starts, just like the woman she played for at Tennessee, and there isn’t a kids’ table at this Thanksgiving event. Tip-off will be for grown women.
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.