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Men’s cross country expects great things at Big Ten meet

For five seasons, Minnesota’s men’s cross country team has proven it belongs among the nation’s better programs.

The Gophers are one of just nine universities to run at the NCAA championships for five consecutive years.

This year, Minnesota is stocked with talented runners all aiming to elevate the program’s status from solid to superb.

“It remains to be seen how good we can be,” coach Steve Plasencia said. “But this is veteran group.”

The first proving ground is the Big Ten championships this Sunday in West Lafayette, Ind. With a roster of seniors, transfers and precocious underclassmen, the Gophers boast one of the deepest teams in recent memory.

Aware of his squad’s potential, Plasencia has tried to blend his good fortune with smart preparation.

The Gophers skipped the stressful pre-NCAA meet on Oct. 19 for the first time in Plasencia’s seven years as head coach, a move Plasencia made to keep his team physically and mentally rested.

Instead, Minnesota competed at the Jim Drews Invitational in Lacrosse, Wisc. The Gophers received a bonus by beating Wisconsin, the defending Big Ten champion, for the second time this season.

But Plasencia knows the only races of consequence begin Sunday.

“We’re taking our victories over Wisconsin with a grain of salt,” Plasencia said. “Wisconsin has a stable of studs. We have guys that can run with them, and we have guys who must run the race of their lives to run with them.”

Headlining the Gophers squad are holdovers from Minnesota’s best postseason team of the Plasencia era.

Seniors Andrew McKessock and Will McComb ran for the Gophers in 1999. The team finished third at Big Tens, its best placing in a decade. Minnesota went on to its first-ever victory at the Midwest Regional and a 15th place effort at the NCAA meet.

Yet McComb believes this year’s squad holds the edge in talent.

“We have the chance to do some damage at Big Tens this year,” McComb said. “The expectation is to do extremely well.”

McKessock concurs. After redshirting last season and watching his teammates finish a disappointing seventh at Big Tens, McKessock’s final season is his fifth with the program. He said this year’s team is the deepest he’s seen.

“I find myself fourth on the team instead of one or two when I first got here,” McKessock said. I’m not running any worse, the team’s just that deep.”

So is the Big Ten conference.

The latest MONDO cross country poll has Minnesota at No. 15, one of seven Big Ten schools to be ranked.

Wisconsin (11), Michigan (12), Indiana (18), Ohio State (20), Michigan State (23) and Iowa (29) are ranked in the top-30 poll as well.

With a competitive conference field waiting, the Gophers’ determination will serve them well.

“This year, we decided to just go for it,” McKessock said.

“All our cards are on the table.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]
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