Cross country runner Matt Welch aims for Big Ten success after hot start

The redshirt junior recently earned Big Ten Athlete of the Week honors.

Redshirt junior Matt Welch runs in the Merrill Fischbein Men's Gold race at the Roy Griak Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at the Les Bolstad golf course.

Chelsea Gortmaker, Daily File Photo

Redshirt junior Matt Welch runs in the Merrill Fischbein Men’s Gold race at the Roy Griak Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at the Les Bolstad golf course.

Alyssa Hodenfield

Both Minnesota cross country teams host the Big Ten Championship meet this Sunday at home, and it should be an important one for redshirt junior Matt Welch.

Welch has been a consistent force for the Gophers all season and has big goals heading into the conference meet.

“I’m looking forward to our team competing for a Big Ten title. We haven’t won a Big Ten title since 1969, and I think it’s due,” Welch said. “I’m most looking forward to [having the race] on our home course with our home crowd.”

Welch has greatly improved as a runner in the past two seasons at Minnesota. Last year, the Duluth, Minnesota native finished 29th at the Roy Griak Invitational.

This season, Welch upgraded his performance by finishing in second.

Welch was named Big Ten Athlete of the Week in September for his efforts.

“It was a big honor. it really was. I didn’t even know about it until someone told me,” Welch said. “Thinking about all fall sports and whatnot, it means a lot to me. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s really exciting for me.”

Welch helped the Gophers return to the NCAA Championships last season — the first time since 2011 — after he finished 56th in the NCAA Midwest Regional. This year, he’s chasing similar results.

Welch said he worked hard this summer and put in many miles to prepare for the fall cross country season.

“I think he’s got natural talent, and I think it’s very important for him to do well,” said head coach Steve Plasencia. “He was running a lot in the summer, and what happens in the fall a lot of times is determined by what happens in the summer.”

Welch said he enjoys how natural the team dynamic is, and Plasencia said Welch contributes to that dynamic and is an example on the course.

“He’s got a great personality. He’s an upbeat guy, and he’s fun to be around,” Plasencia said. “The guys all like him, so I think from that standpoint, he helps us to feel good and get things rolling a bit.”

In Welch’s last Big Ten Championship meet, he ran a new personal-best 8K record of 24:47.7 and finished 59th.

Plasencia said he tries not to place high standards on any one runner at this point in this season, but he does hope that Welch can make a big showing to be repaid for his hard work.

“My expectation of all these guys is that they just do a great job of preparing themselves so that they’re ready to go when they hit the course,” Plasencia said. “My wish for [Welch] is that he just keeps building on the momentum he’s created for himself, and I don’t see a reason why he can’t do that.”