Cross country relies on junior class at NCAAs

Mark Heller

Two years ago, Steve Plasencia came to Minnesota to coach the men’s cross country team. Six freshmen joined the team that year.
In Plasencia’s second season, the Gophers made the NCAA championships for the first time in 17 years, finishing 18th. It was those freshman-turned sophomores that helped get them there.
This year, the Gophers will run in the NCAAs for the second consecutive year, and four sophomores-turned-juniors were a main reason for Minnesota’s return.
“Leadership comes from those with NCAA experience,” Plasencia said. “I have a lot of reliance on Josh Brang, Eric Pierce, Jeremy Polson and (alternate) Chuck Smith. They set the tone.”
The NCAA championships begin Monday in Lawrence, Kan. Minnesota received an at-large bid earlier this week after finishing third in the District V tournament.
Pierce, Brang and Polson know they have to come up big, but they also know they’re not the only runners who are capable of doing so.
“Joey Corr has run really well all year,” Pierce said. “He’s been our number one runner most of the year. But it can’t be up to a few guys; everyone has to run strong, one through seven.”
“This team doesn’t have a superstar,” Brang said. “But we have a lot of guys with equal ability, and anyone of us can step up and be the number one guy or number seven guy.”
This group of runners has been around the corner before, and they are expecting a different result the second time around.
“We have higher expectations this year,” Polson said. “Our team is very similar to last year. We only lost a couple of people and we’ve filled those holes in very well.”
“We aren’t as scared as we were the first time,” said Pierce. “We were kind of in shock about getting in last year. This year it was something we expected to be in.”
Now that the 23rd-ranked Gophers are in, they can expect some tough competition. Joining Minnesota from the Big Ten are No. 5 Michigan State, No. 7 Michigan, 13th-ranked Wisconsin and 20th-ranked Iowa.
“With five Big Ten schools running, we have rivals we want to beat as well,” Polson said. “It’s also a pride thing.”
The junior class has led the Gophers all season, but it takes seven runners to win, not four.
“I think we (juniors) are the strong point of the team,” Pierce said. “We’re a group that has to run together and run smart — find our pace and stay there.”
The NCAA championships conclude a long season for the Gophers, who want to put their best foot forward.
“There’s only one race left,” Plasencia said. “We have to let it all hang out. There’s nothing left to hold back for now.”