Freshmen nucleus provides cross country with bright future

Minnesota will most likely redshirt all five of its freshmen this season.

Freshmen nucleus provides cross country with bright future

Becky Miller

Dane Mizutani

The No. 17 Gophers menâÄôs cross country team has not run in competition since placing third at the Roy Griak Invitational âÄî a meet talented freshman Adam Zutz is especially familiar with.

A graduate of St. Francis High School, Zutz won the 2010 Gold Race as a senior. Later that year, he won the individual state cross country championship for Minnesota.

Fast forward to 2011 and Zutz has continued to make an impression in his inaugural year with the Gophers.

He finished second at the Oz Memorial, running unattached for the Gophers in his first collegiate meet.

Zutz is just one talent in a group of freshmen that also includes Aaron Bartnik, Alex Brend, Matt Jergenson and Christian Skaret.

âÄúThey are very mature for a freshmen group of guys,âÄù head coach Steve Plasencia said. âÄúThey understand what their role is on the team and they understand that itâÄôs a long process to get where they want to go here, so from that standpoint it makes them easier to work with.âÄù

Though their role may not be prominent this season with All-American Hassan Mead, Pieter Gagnon and other veterans peppered throughout the scoring roster, their abilities will be called upon in the future.

âÄúWe think these guys are going to be future leaders of our team and so to have those guys get off to a good start here and just keep progressing is what we want to do,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúAs we start to see guys that we think can mature into strong roles here it gives us a little bit of a good feeling.âÄù

Bartnik, Jergenson, Skaret and Zutz all attended high school in Minnesota, so the players were familiar with each other coming into the season. That made their transition to collegiate athletics a little easier.

âÄúWe kind of knew of each other in high school, but didnâÄôt really talk a whole lot,âÄù Zutz said. âÄúBut at the beginning of the season the team always goes up north for an extended weekend, and when we were up there we all kind of bonded closely and now weâÄôre all pretty close.âÄù

Barring an injury to a top runner, the team will likely redshirt all five, according to Plasencia. That way they each have four years of eligibility remaining.

âÄúWeâÄôre going to keep a good eye on whatâÄôs best for this yearâÄôs team,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúWeâÄôre going good with the individuals we have running, and if we continue to progress like we have been, we probably will be redshirting [the freshmen] in totality. We want to be good now and in the future.âÄù

Skaret said he is excited for the extra year of eligibility within the group of freshmen.

âÄúIt really bodes well because all five of us are running strong already and it only leaves room for a lot of improvement,âÄù Skaret said. âÄúWeâÄôve got a really good class, and weâÄôre gearing up to do something special.âÄù

Plasencia said the future success of his freshmen hinges on how the group develops over the next few years.

âÄúWe think they have a lot of potential, but what we need to do is actualize that potential,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúThatâÄôs not a given. We need them to continue to work hard and we need a little luck with those guys. If we get those things, weâÄôre going to have fun times here with each of those guys over the next years because they all have unique talent.âÄù

Bartnik was the Minnesota Class AA state champion in 2009. Jergenson was single A state runner-up. Skaret was the state 1,600-meter champion and Brend won the Illinois Class 3A 800-meter championship.