Home course advantage?

C.J. Spang

For the first time in 10 years, Minnesota’s men’s and women’s cross country teams will have “home field” advantage at the Big Ten Championships.

The Gophers play host to the 2005 Big Ten Championships on Sunday at Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights.

Both the 23rd-ranked men’s team and the 11th-ranked women’s team will face stiff competition from six ranked opponents on the men’s side and five ranked opponents on the women’s side.

But the Gophers have a leg up running on their home course.

“I’ve always said that I think it’s worth at least one place up in the standings,” women’s coach Gary Wilson said. “We’ve got the kind of team that loves this course. They run well on this course.”

Along with the strategic advantage of knowing the ins and outs of the course, there is the crowd factor as well.

“We’ve always had good followings,” Wilson said. “We’ll have 30 people at a Big Ten meet, even if it’s at Ohio. But we could have 300 to 1,000 people there cheering for us.”

Wilson said the only downside to that is trying to keep his runners calm and focused all week.

But with the team’s veteran leaders, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Those leaders include senior Lauren Williams, junior Emily Brown and sophomore Ladia Albertson-Junkans, who have alternated as the top runner throughout the season.

“I think the number one factor that made this team so

successful is that we don’t have consistent top seven,” Williams said. “I think every meet from the beginning of the year until the end we’re going to have a different person in every spot on our roster, just depending on who has a great day that day.

“You can’t win a Big Ten championship with two runners, or with three or four.”

While the women’s team has been able to race its top runners all season, the men’s team hasn’t had that luxury.

A mere two weeks ago, 2004 all-region performers Antonio Vega and Erik Grumstrup ran in their first race of the season after recovering from injury.

“With these guys in the lineup, that definitely will move us up in the Big Ten race,” senior co-captain Ryan Malmin said. “Without them, we’d have to depend on maybe a little bit of luck with the younger guys stepping up. It’s just more of a sure thing to have these guys here.”

But having two of their top runners back may not be enough to overtake second-ranked Wisconsin, which is trying for its seventh consecutive Big Ten title.

“Everybody in the Big Ten has been chasing the Badgers for 15 years,” coach Steve Plasencia said. “They’re about eight deep at guys who can all be in the top 50 in the country. It’s an incredibly deep squad and probably the strongest Badger squad I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

That’s saying a lot for a coach who has guided Minnesota to eight straight NCAA Championship appearances in only nine years as coach.

But that streak looks pale in comparison with Wisconsin’s streak of 33 consecutive NCAA Championships appearances, dating back to 1972.

So for the Gophers, and the rest of the Big Ten field, the race is for second.

“You just gotta go out there and do your job and anything above and beyond that is great,” Grumstrup said. “But we just need to work hard for each other, and if we can do that and run our best, we’ll be fine.”