Talented freshmen return to Griak

Chris Lempesis

At last year’s Roy Griak Invitational, the Minnesota men’s and women’s cross country teams had strong performances; the men finished seventh while the women claimed second.

But the Division I race wasn’t the only important run that day for the Gophers cross country program.

The winners of the boys’ and girls’ high school races at the 2005 Griak, Mike Torchia and Elizabeth Yetzer, are now freshmen for Minnesota. Both are examples of why the program now ranks with some of the best in the nation.

That’s because 2006 marks the first time the Gophers will have both the boys’ and girls’ Griak high school race winners as freshmen on its rosters.

The high school race attracts teams and talent from all over the country and men’s coach Steve Plasencia said landing such talent is a positive harbinger for Minnesota.

“It is a good signal for this program, overall, men’s and women’s, that we’ve been able to bring in top talent like that from our area,” Plasencia said. “It’s so important for us to get the talent that’s close to home.”

Torchia and Yetzer are indeed close to home for the Gophers as Torchia attended Rochester Lourdes High School while Yetzer went to Lakeville North High School.

Women’s coach Gary Wilson said he can remember a time when getting the best in-state talent was not an assured thing.

“When I first came here 22 years ago, the best kids in the state were leaving the state,” he said. “And I think the same on the men’s side for the most part. So many of the great ones went someplace else.”

Looking at the resumes of Torchia and Yetzer, both seem to have the potential to be great ones who didn’t go someplace else.

Torchia claimed Class A state champion honors in his final two years at Lourdes and just missed advancing to the prestigious Foot Locker Nationals last season, finishing 11th at the Foot Locker Regionals. A 10th place finish would have been enough to get him to the Nationals in San Diego.

As disappointed as he was by just missing out, Torchia said it was a “blessing in disguise” because it gave him extra motivation for the track and field season in the spring.

According to Plasencia, Torchia is never lacking the proper motivation. In fact, Plasencia said Torchia’s work ethic, along with his intelligence, is his greatest strength.

“When we’d get done with (strength training) up at (training) camp,” Plasencia said, “I noticed Mike would always come back about 20 minutes later and add on more to what everybody was doing.”

Topping what everybody else was doing, on the course at least, is a big reason Yetzer was thought to be one the top cross country recruits in the nation.

She was a two-time Minnesota Class AA state champion at Lakeville North, a squad she led to team championships in 2003 and 2005.

She is also upholding a family tradition of running for Minnesota. Her mother, Mary, and sister Annie are alumnae of the program and her other sister, Rebekah, is a member of the cross country and track and field teams.

Wilson said it’s not just good genetics at play.

“She’s always, always, always been a competitor,” he said. “That kid can compete. She’s obviously genetically gifted but there are a lot of kids that are genetically gifted that don’t have the heart.”

The duo of Torchia and Yetzer could signify the start of a pipeline of Griak high school winners who go on to wear the maroon and gold – Torchia said he certainly hopes so.

One thing he and Yetzer also are certain of: their respective chances of pulling off a Griak repeat.

The Division I Griak field is one of the toughest in the nation, so, the newcomers think their chances are slim.

“No,” Yetzer said with a laugh when asked whether she was planning on winning. “(There will be runners who) are a lot faster than me ├ľ I probably won’t be in the top 10, but I’m excited to see where I will be.”

As far as her and Torchia’s futures are concerned, she’s not the only one who’s excited.