X-Country teams ready for first big meet of the year

by Brian Sensaas

The course has been mowed, the multicolored flags are ready to go up and the neon shoes are ready to run.
One of the premier cross country events is once again set to take place at Minnesota’s Les Bolstad University Golf Course. Now in its ninth year of existence, the Roy Griak Invitational will take place Saturday. In total, about 100 teams will take part in the event at all levels.
The maroon races — races for Division II and III teams — will be run first. The races start with the men, beginning at 9:30 Saturday morning and the women’s race begins at 10:30 a.m.
Division I schools will run shortly after. The gold men’s race will start at 11:00 with the gun sounding for the women at noon.
In addition to the college-level races, both boy’s and girl’s high school teams will be racing at the event.
On the women’s side, the 23rd-ranked Gophers are looking for a repeat performance from Rasa Michniovaite. The senior All-American won the event last year with a time of 17:08, leading Minnesota to a fourth-place finish. It marked the first time that a Minnesota runner captured first place at the meet.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Michniovaite said. “Coach says that I’m running at about the same spot I was last year. I know that I will do my best.”
While Michniovaite’s abilities may pave the way for the women, coach Gary Wilson says that the rest of the team has to follow the beaten path.
“We need all of our runners to go out and run like champions,” he said. “Everyone’s a champion, mentally. If they go out there and give me everything they’ve got, that’s running like a champion.”
Wilson has been telling his runners to prepare for the invitational by conserving energy during the race. He said that if a runner expects to finish in the top five, they should be around 15th at the two-kilometer mark.
“They don’t give out any awards at the 2K mark,” he said. “I want them to be in the hunt, not too far up.”
After the near untouchable BYU team, Wilson sees the Gophers finishing anywhere from second to fifth place.
“This is a big meet for us,” Wilson said. “It’s our first major test of the season.”
Men’s coach Steve Plasencia is also well aware of the meet’s implications for his team.
“For us, this race definitely has added significance,” he said. “It’s the largest race next to the NCAA and it’s right here on our course.”
Despite missing three days of running after a dual race with Drake Sept. 10, Minnesota’s top runner remains senior Eric Pierce. Plasencia said that Pierce suffered a muscle strain early in the race and that he was sore after hanging on to win the event.
“It’s scary,” Pierce said. “But with every workout I got more and more confident that it would heal.”
Pierce said that after the three-day rest, he began to run slowly and then worked back up to top speed.
“A lot of times, you think you’re healed and go out and run hard right away,” he continued. “Then you just end up re-injuring yourself.”
In order for the Gopher men to repeat last year’s fifth-place finish at the meet, they will have to run with five strong-willed runners. Doing that has been a problem so far in the young season.
“This is a team where we have three strong runners,” Plasencia said. “We need five runners to step up, every race, and show that they are going to run at the Division I level.”
A total of 11 teams that competed in the NCAA championships last year will be racing in tomorrow’s event. Among them is the 1998 Griak champion, Providence. Also lurking in the shadows will be Wisconsin. The Badgers won four straight invitationals prior to last year’s triumph by the Friars.

Brian Stensaas is a general assignment reporter and welcomes comments at [email protected]