For the Gophers men’s cross country team, the Big Ten championships on Saturday are a true test to see how far the team has come this year.
“The Big Ten Championships are the start of a different season,” coach Steve Plasencia said. “The squads get cut down starting this Saturday, and things get smaller and more concentrated.
“I’ll like to see a top-three finish, but I know that we have to do a lot to get that spot.”
But getting that top-three finish hasn’t come easy for Minnesota — the Gophers have finished fourth in each of the last two years.
In order for the Gophers to move up, all nine runners will have to run well, unlike some meets this year. Minnesota can’t afford an off-day.
The nine runners are led by seniors Eric Pierce and Jeremy Polson. The others include Joey Corr, Nate Clay, Will McComb, Andrew McKessock, Jason Owen, Josh Brang and Neil Hanson.
But Pierce figures he’s a key component of Minnesota’s chances of success.
“We have a shot at winning,” Pierce said. “But that means I have to finish in at least the top five, if not the top three.”
All nine Gophers need to run smart races for Minnesota to have a chance to get into the top three as a team.
“We need to run a controlled race, and try to make sure we have something in the take for the end,” Plasencia said.
The competition for the Gophers is led by Wisconsin and Michigan. The Badgers and Wolverines have won every Big Ten title in the ’90s.
“Wisconsin is the front-runner, and Michigan is much stronger than we thought,” Plasencia said. “Ohio State and Penn State are two teams we’re going to have to watch out for, and Iowa has always been a nemesis for us.”
Penn State is the host school for the championships, and the course is different from others which the Gophers have run this year.
The course is an odd 5.2 mile course — about one-half kilometers longer than a normal course. Plasencia said the added length probably won’t affect the outcome of the race.
Even though the year has been rough for the Gophers, everyone is optimistic about the short time left.
“It has been a building process to this point and we’ve had some rough spots, but now everything is starting to smooth out,” Plasencia said.