Experience brings consistency for Gophers team with high aims

After dropping out of the rankings early last year, Minnesota has stuck at 16th or 17th.

David McCoy

After getting bumped out of the national rankings poll early last year, Minnesota’s men’s cross country team is back again.

The Gophers began last season ranked 19th in the Mondo Men’s Division I Preseason Poll.

But after taking third out of seven teams in the Brigham Young Autumn Classic, behind Brigham Young and Weber State the following week, the Gophers dropped out of the polls and didn’t return for the rest of the season.

By the end of the year, the Gophers took sixth at the Big Ten Championships and barely made the NCAA Championships as the 31st-ranked team out of 31.

Minnesota’s troubles were in large part because of the absence of All-American Andrew Carlson, who missed the year with a hip injury. Without Carlson, the Gophers finished 26th at the NCAAs.

This year, Minnesota began the year ranked 16th in the preseason poll. And this time around, the Gophers are holding their ground.

They have held fast in the 16-17 range throughout the year, and currently sit 16th.

And although he normally doesn’t take much stock in the rankings, coach Steve Plasencia believes this year’s rankings are a good reflection of his team, he said.

“Polls are worth slightly more than the paper they’re written on, but not much,” Plasencia said. “But I think the polls are relatively accurate this year.”

Minnesota’s consistency in the rankings this year can be directly attributed to the return of a strong, dedicated and experienced core of veterans, several of whom are seniors.

Out of the seven runners Minnesota sent to nationals last year, all but Luke Mullranin returned.

But Carlson has filled those shoes nicely.

One of those seniors, Ryan Ford, said a more dedicated attitude among those veterans is the reason the Gophers are starting to see dividends.

“People put in a lot of hard work this summer,” Ford said. “This is the toughest squad we’ve had since I’ve been here, and it’s definitlely the most committed.”

In addition, true freshman Justin Grunewald has added a huge spark to the veteran group, placing in the top five on the team in each race so far.

After being ranked No. 1 in the first two regional polls of the season and second in the two most recent, the Gophers are expected by many to make their eighth-straight trip to the NCAA meet.

In their races so far this season, the Gophers have lived up to that expectation.

Finishing right behind a very good Brigham Young team in Utah and earning a handful of at-large berth points at the Roy Griak Invitational, the Gophers are beginning to make their aspirations a reality.

And, Carlson said, a new approach has helped them in this regard and it is a big reason their ranking has stayed so consistent.

“In the past, we’ve been all about talking it up,” Carlson said. “This year, we’ve just been racing and not worrying about anyone else.”