Women take second, men finish sixth

C.J. Spang

For the second straight season, Minnesota’s women’s cross country team is headed to the NCAA Championships.

The sixth-ranked Gophers earned a spot at the 2006 NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., next Monday, thanks to a second-place finish at the 2006 Midwest Region Championships on Saturday.

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NCAA Championships
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 20
WHERE: Terre Haute, Ind.

Illinois won the meet with 44 points as the 13th-ranked Ill. had five runners in the top 14. Minnesota was second with 49 points and it was a performance that coach Gary Wilson was very happy with.

“I thought they gave everything they had today,” he said of his team. “It was a blood and guts tough race.”

Wilson said he was pleased with the way his inexperienced and young squad ran.

Minnesota’s squad consisted of two true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, one sophomore, a junior and a senior.

Wilson said the freshmen were nervous Saturday and he gave them each a fatherly talk of sorts to try and calm their nerves.

“I think the general statement was: you know, you guys have done a marvelous job; just be in there and run and relax and have fun,” he said.

His talk must have worked, because six out of seven runners earned All-Region honors and the seventh missed out on the award by a split second.

Senior Emily Brown led the Gophers in third place (20:48.57) and junior Ladia Albertson-Junkans was right behind in her in fourth place (20:53.62).

The duo finished third and second last year, respectively, and were considered contenders for the individual title this year, but Iowa junior Diane Nukuri blew the field away, winning by nearly 13 seconds (20:34.72).

Nukuri, who has been known to go out strong and fade at the end of the race, didn’t falter at all and made a move at the four-kilometer mark to pull away from the pack for the win.

“We’ve seen her go out hard and then not be able to finish the last (few kilometers), so I was thinking her move was a little premature,” Brown said. “But she made one of the best moves I’ve ever seen made and she held it, and so she really deserved to win.”

Streak likely over

No one had to say anything. The disappointment could be seen on their faces, on the comforting arm resting on the coach’s shoulder and the blank stares off into the distance.

After a sixth-place finish at the 2006 Midwest Region Championships, the men’s cross country team will likely miss the 2006 NCAA Championships for the first time since 1997, ending the fifth-longest active streak in the country.

“No one wanted to be a part of the team that didn’t go to nationals – that broke the streak,” senior Antonio Vega said. “And this is the team right here. It looks like we did it. “

The Gophers will need to earn one of the remaining 13 at-large bids that will be announced today.

The Big 12 dominated the race as Oklahoma State won, Kansas placed second, Missouri was fourth and Iowa State finished fifth.

Iowa senior Micah VanDenend won the 10-kilometer race (30:34.84) as the Hawkeyes finished third.

Minnesota sophomore Chris Rombough – who won the Big Ten title on Oct. 29 – made a late surge in the final 1,000 meters to pass a number of runners to lead the Gophers with a second-place finish (30:47.19).

Rombough will participate in the NCAA Championships because the top four individuals whose teams don’t qualify compete as individuals.

“I would have much rather had it continue with the team, but I’m still running, so I’m happy with that.”

Vega, the event’s defending champion, was the Gophers’ second-highest finisher, placing 11th (31:07.04).

The rest of the team ran as a pack for much of the race. Unfortunately, the entire pack was too far from the lead to secure a higher finish.

“You go out, you think you’re ready and then for whatever reason it didn’t appear that we were,” coach Steve Plasencia said. “Our pack of guys stayed together but they were too far back all the way through.”