Gophers runners to make trip to NCAAs despite doubt

Brett Angel

It was shortly after midnight Nov. 16 when Minnesota cross country runner Luke Mullranin returned home to his Minneapolis apartment, physically and emotionally drained.

A few hours later, Mullranin was greeted by an unexpected visitor, former teammate Andrew McKessock.

“He came over to our place about 2:30 or 3 and jumped on me when I was trying to sleep,” Mullranin said. “He just wanted to show us how happy he was for us. And he was happy.”

Lucky for him, Mullranin and his current teammates – and roommates – Ryan Ford, Josh DoBell and Andrew Carlson were too excited to sleep anyway.

Earlier that day, Mullranin led the Gophers to an unlikely second-place finish in the NCAA Midwest Regional Championship in Stillwater, Okla., earning Minnesota its seventh consecutive trip to the national meet.

The NCAA championships will be held today at the Warren Memorial Golf Course in Waterloo, Iowa, with the men’s 10-kilometer race beginning at 11 a.m.

At first glance, it seems the Gophers should act like a team that’s been here before, because they’ve traveled here yearly since 1997.

But Minnesota’s run and its high expectations were threatened when the team lost Carlson to a hip injury early in the season. Without their top runner, the Gophers failed to perform to their potential for much of the year.

Heading into the regional meet, coach Steve Plasencia admitted he doubted the streak would continue.

“I was nervous going into that race knowing that we had to be in the top two to move on,” Plasencia said. “I knew we could run better than we did at the Big Ten meet, but I didn’t know if it would be enough.”

Thanks to a career day by Mullranin and some gritty performances by its three through five runners, Minnesota is heading back to the national championships.

“It’s something we take a lot of pride in,” said Mullranin, who finished as the team’s lead runner at the Midwest Regional for the first time in his career.

“It means a lot to go, especially when people were telling us it was over,” he said.

Plasencia can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing the Gophers’ season is extended for an extra week, although some of his runners remained confident all along.

“I think deep down we all expected to be there,” said redshirt freshman Antonio Vega, who finished second for Minnesota and ninth overall at the Midwest Regional. “We didn’t exactly race our best throughout the season, but we knew we would put a good race together when it came time.”

Now, the Gophers have another chance to prove themselves worthy competition against the country’s best runners and gain some satisfaction in a season filled with question marks.

Minnesota is one of five Big Ten schools competing at the national meet. Second-ranked Wisconsin is expected to contend for the team title. while, Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana also qualified.

The Gophers would like nothing more than to get some revenge against conference rivals who got the better of them earlier this season.

“Wisconsin’s got too many big guns for us, but schools like Indiana and Ohio State, we’d love to pay those guys back for three weeks ago when they got us (at the Big Ten championships),” Mullranin said.

In seven straight trips to the NCAA Championships, Minnesota’s best finish was 15th in 1999. The Gophers finished 17th a year ago.

“Obviously, you’d like to improve on what you’ve done in the past, but when you look at the rankings on paper right now we’ve got nothing to lose,” Plasencia said.

Minnesota is ranked 31st nationally in the season’s final cross country poll. Thirty-one teams and 38 additional individuals will compete in the 10-kilometer race totaling 255 runners.

With Carlson out, the Gophers lack a lead runner with the ability to finish in the nation’s top 10 and will instead rely upon the strength of their three through five runners to race together in a pack.

At the Midwest Regional race, Ford, Martin Robeck and Ryan Malmin finished within three seconds of each other.

Plasencia hopes for the same type of consistency from this group today in predicted weather conditions to be near freezing with a chance of snow.

But whether Minnesota continues its surprising run with a solid national meet showing, Mullranin will likely sleep well tonight knowing they made it this far – unless, of course, McKessock has other plans in mind.