Price takes second in the Griak

Derek Wetmore

In the GophersâÄô biggest home meet of the season, junior Steph Price highlighted the competition for Minnesota with a second-place finish at the Griak Invitational on Saturday. PriceâÄôs finish led the No. 28 women to a seventh-place finish. The No. 27 Gophers menâÄôs team âÄî who competed for the first time after star runner Hassan Mead took a medical redshirt âÄî finished fifth. Senior captains Ben Blankenship (10th) and Mike Torchia (14th) were MinnesotaâÄôs top finishers, and sophomore Pieter Gagnon (15th) also clocked inside the top 20. Price beat her personal best by more than a half minute, finishing in 20 minutes, 41 seconds âÄî just two seconds behind North Carolina StateâÄôs Laura Hoer. Behind Price, the teamâÄôs youth stepped up to round out the top five. With the exception of senior Nikki Swenson (49th overall, fourth Gophers finisher), the rest of the top five were all underclassmen: freshman Missa Varpness (28th, second), freshman Ashlie Decker (39th, third) and sophomore Kayla Wagner (67th, fifth). âÄúIt was a good day âÄî it wasnâÄôt a great day,âÄù assistant coach Sarah Hesser said. âÄúWeâÄôre not thrilled with it, but we did a good job.âÄù Head coach Gary Wilson added: âÄúI told the girls, âÄòIf you ran this race two weeks from now, weâÄôd see another 20 seconds [shaved off] from all of you.âÄô âÄù As with any young team, the womenâÄôs coaches know that thereâÄôs a learning curve and that a high-level race like the Griak is the way to speed along that process. The team has three meets left before the pre-NCAA race Oct. 16, when runners have a chance to qualify for nationals. âÄúThe girls will run better at pre-nats for having had this experience at Griak, we just need to iron out some of the mistakes as a team,âÄù Hesser said. âÄúBut the talent is there.âÄù The 25th running of the annual Roy Griak Invitational drew huge crowds, with thousands of participants and even more spectators. Participation numbers werenâÄôt released, but the team said last week that they expected to break their previous record of 3,505 runners. After a light rain in the early morning, conditions cleared to allow for a clean day of racing, aside from some mud after portions of Les Bolstad golf course were torn up by a high volume of runners. âÄúIt was a lot of fun having such a home crowd here,âÄù Price said. âÄúIt was really fun having everyone cheer me on. I really drew that energy from the [home] crowd.âÄù For the men, competing without Mead âÄî who was on hand to cheer on his team âÄî has become an accepted reality. They spread the burden around, finishing fifth as a team despite the fact that their best individual finisher, Blankenship, came in 10th. Blankenship got a late start on conditioning due to competing for USA Track and Field this summer and taking a short break afterward. That in mind, his finish was encouraging to a team that will now look to him as a leader. âÄúWe think we know where Ben Blankenship can compete when heâÄôs healthy,âÄù head coach Steve Plasencia said. That could become a theme for the rest of the season, and so far, there are no injury concerns with the rest of the team. Griak means more The power that an invitational as heralded as the Roy Griak holds is most evident on race day. To observe the look of excitement, especially among the high school athletes competing, sums up the Griak experience. âÄúRight from the get-go [in 1985] we decided we were going to do this first class âĦ and make it special for the kids that come,âÄù Wilson said. Since the race was created, Wilson said there was ultimately one purpose. âÄúItâÄôs not about anything other than, do [the kids] come and have the best cross country experience theyâÄôve ever had in their life?âÄù he said. WomenâÄôs redshirt freshman Caitlin Olson said she was convinced to walk on and join the team simply by watching the Griak last year. âÄúItâÄôs amazing,âÄù she said of the power the Griak Invitational holds. âÄúSeeing it last year just really made me want to be a part of it and come out for the team.âÄù Related: – Roy Griak Invitational 2010 (video) – Thousands of runners coming for Griak Invitational (9/22)