Rombough can repeat in Columbus

Chris Rombough will defend his conference title this weekend in Ohio.

Mark Remme

Two Big Ten cross country championships will take place this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, and there’s no doubt two dynasty programs will be on the hot seat facing strong competition in each race.

The Minnesota men’s and women’s cross country teams will be in the thick of catching those dominant programs Saturday. The women’s 6 kilometer race will start at 9:45 a.m. CDT followed by the men’s 8 kilometer at 10:30.

For the men’s team, the Gophers are squarely looking at Wisconsin, a group looking for its 41st Big Ten title after winning the previous eight conference championships.

The Badgers have historically owned this meet, and Michigan State has the second most Big Ten titles at 14. Minnesota, with its three conference championships, hasn’t won since 1969.

Gophers coach Steve Plasencia said this year might be the first time since 1997 another team takes home the crown.

“I, for one, haven’t given up the chase,” he said.

At least Plasencia has one title holder on his team that could be good fortune for Minnesota. Senior Chris Rombough is the defending individual champion after pulling out a rather upset victory last season.

Rombough crossed the finish line first while holding off five Badgers who placed in the top 10 last year. Being a team-oriented sport, Plasencia acknowledged his squad will need a similar effort out of the top five runners, not just an individual effort from Rombough.

“The meet won’t be won or lost if Rombough finishes first or fifth,” he said.

The dynamics of the Gophers team will be a bit different this weekend, with sophomores Matt Barratt and Mike Torchia expected to both sit out while hampered with injuries.

Justin Grunewald is expected to step in as a top-five runner. He’s predicted to contribute mightily if the Gophers hope to knock off Wisconsin’s impressive streak.

“Our goal every year is to upset the Badgers,” Rombough said. “It’s definitely doable. We just need to run at the best of our abilities.”

Women look for title

The women’s cross country team is in a similar boat Saturday in Columbus, as No. 6 Michigan comes in looking for its sixth straight Big Ten championship.

The Wolverines will be facing a devastating field, however, as four top 10 teams and seven ranked teams overall will compete for the title.

“This is probably the best team we’ve ever had depth-wise,” coach Gary Wilson said, “but this is also probably the best Big Ten meet in terms of depth.”

The eighth-ranked Gophers will go head-to-head with Michigan, seventh-ranked Michigan State and 10th-ranked Illinois in vying for the title, and to do so they’ll need a tightened split between their fourth and fifth runners.

Wilson said he’s worked with his team simulating the first three kilometers of the race during practice this week, and he said his fifth through seventh runners began adjusting to catching competitors early in the race.

“We need their mentality in it from the first (three kilometers),” Wilson said.

He said with such a strong field, it’s essential for his latter runners to keep as close to the fourth spot as they can.

Minnesota is looking for its first Big Ten title since the women’s cross country event began in 1981.

Of the five teams to ever win the event, only Michigan and Wisconsin have won it more than twice.

The Gophers, having accomplished a Roy Griak Invitational championship and their highest ever school ranking at No. 4 just weeks ago, might have their best shot to pull out a win at the Big Ten on Saturday.

“When you step to that line, you’ve got to be focused for the full 20 minutes,” Wilson said. “If you can do that, you should be in good shape.”