Women qualify; men have to wait another day

C.J. Spang

For the seniors on Minnesota’s women’s cross country team, Saturday’s race results couldn’t be posted soon enough.

The 11th-ranked Gophers scored 90 points in the Midwest Regional race in Iowa City, tied for second with No. 6 Illinois. But thanks to a second-place finish by sophomore Ladia Albertson-Junkans, Minnesota won the tiebreaker, and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships ” the first for everyone on the team.

“I think (coach Gary) Wilson right away told us that we probably got third or fourth and so we were kind of upset,” junior Emily Brown said. “We just thought that we were going to get third then because of the way that they had put it up on the standings.

“Then they took it down for the tiebreaker and that’s when I think we started to get really excited.”

The trio of Albertson-Junkans, Brown and senior Lauren Williams finished second, third and fourth, respectively, while seniors Jen Hess and Harper McConnell finished 40th and 41st to round out the Gophers’ top five.

No. 16 Oklahoma State won the event with 74 points and all seven runners finishing in the top 26.

While Minnesota’s top trio has been consistent all year, the key for the Gophers in the race was Hess and McConnell.

“When we finally caught our breath, we turned around to look to see where (McConnell and Hess) were finishing,” Brown said. “We were starting to get worried but then all of sudden we saw Jen and Harper coming together… and that’s what’s been missing all season.”

It was another pleasant surprise for a team that has shocked many after starting unranked in the preseason poll.

“Well, they said all week, “We’re going for the top two,’ and on paper we weren’t a top-two team,” Wilson said. “They said “We’re just going to get the job done,’ and they did it.”

Now the focus shifts to the NCAA Championships.

But Wilson expects his team to take it just like any other race.

“They’ve got a really great focus about them, the whole team does,” Wilson said. “It’s not just like, “Oh, OK, we got there and boy that’s neat.’ It’s “We’ve gotten there, and we expected to get there, and now we’re going to do well when we get there.’ That’s the whole attitude.”

Hanging in the balance

For the men’s cross country team, their ninth consecutive invitation to the NCAA Championships will have to wait another day.

Despite a first-place finish by junior Antonio Vega, and all-region performances by senior Ryan Malmin and freshman Chris Rombough, the Gophers finished fourth, just five points behind second-place Iowa and the automatic berth.

Oklahoma State came in as the fourth-ranked team in the region, but won the race convincingly with 49 points. Iowa was second with 72 points and Kansas finished third with 74 points.

Now Minnesota must play the waiting game.

“We’ll just be waiting to see what happens with these at-large berths,” Coach Steve Plasencia said. “I’m relatively confident that we’re going to get in.”

Vega said the team has the same confidence as their coach.

“I think we’d be pretty surprised if we didn’t get (the at-large bid),” Vega said. “The team’s staying pretty optimistic at this point.”

Along with optimism, the team has inspiration as well.

Vega had been sidelined for the first two races because of a back injury, and wasn’t even sure he’d be able to run again this season. But he surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the race.

“I knew I could do pretty well at the race,” Vega said. “I wasn’t expecting to win it by any means.”