Blankenship, Price win All-America honors at NCAA championships

by Derek Wetmore

ItâÄôs tough for anyone stuck in Minneapolis and its freezing rain to have much sympathy for Gophers cross country runners competing with temperatures in the low-seventies and a little wind. But weather conditions for the NCAA Championships on Monday in Terre Haute, Ind., werenâÄôt ideal, especially for the snowbirds from Minnesota whoâÄôve been training in the kind of air that burns the lungs. Both the menâÄôs and womenâÄôs teams finished 27th in a 31-team field, after both qualified for the race with at-large bids. Ben Blankenship earned All-America honors for his 39th place overall finish, as did Steph Price, who finished 31st. The heat, humidity and wind made for an abnormal race day for Minnesota, and there were several upsets in the rest of the field. âÄúFor the entire NCAA field, it was just a weird race,âÄù womenâÄôs head coach Gary Wilson said. âÄúThe race never got into a flow for anybody.âÄù WomenâÄôs second runner Missa Varpness was unable to finish the race. Wilson said the weather had an effect on the team as a whole, and it could have played into VarpnessâÄô collapse. She had no prior health incidents this season. âÄúShe got within 200 meters of the finish line and just ran out of gas,âÄù Wilson said. âÄúItâÄôs never good to have your second runner not finish. IâÄôm just glad that she was fine.âÄù Steve Plasencia had predicted the Gophers would beat many of the teams selected ahead of them âÄî they were the last team selected for an at-large bid âÄî but they didnâÄôt finish as high as they expected. Nor did the womenâÄôs team, but neither coach expressed much disappointment, as it wasnâÄôt certain throughout the season if either team would even make the championships. Plasencia traveled with the team to Indiana, but had to leave to attend a family emergency. MenâÄôs track and field head coach Paul Thornton accompanied the team to oversee MondayâÄôs championships. âÄúWe were hopeful to place higher than this but itâÄôs the performance we had today,âÄù Thornton said. âÄúObviously weâÄôre very excited for Ben being able to move up throughout the race and capture his goal of All-American.âÄù Per NCAA rules, Thornton wasnâÄôt allowed to do any coaching. Blankenship, Mike Torchia and Mike McFarland ran their final race for the Gophers. Blankenship and Torchia will leave a sizeable void at the top of the teamâÄôs roster, as they were the top-two runners all season. Hassan MeadâÄôs return from injury should help ease that burden. âÄúAs a coach, you always have one eye on the future,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúWeâÄôre happy to get Hassan back next year, I can tell you that.âÄù On the womenâÄôs side, the team was young and most of the top-seven will return, including the All-American Price. Captains Nikki Swenson and Kelly Wilson are graduating. Swenson finished 150th overall (third among Gophers runners) and will return to the team as a student coaching assistant next season. Claire Rindo was a late roster insertion and was the fourth Gophers finisher. In addition to the 31 teams, each field also had a slew of individuals running whose teams did not qualify. Team scores were tallied after the individualsâÄô places were removed. The Oklahoma State menâÄôs team and Villanova womenâÄôs team both repeated as champions. Many of the athletes will now take an abbreviated break and begin training for indoor track and field shortly.