Men’s team turns season around

The runners held an athletes-only meeting after a meet in October.

Aaron Bartnik runs the final stretch of the Roy Griak Invitational at Les Bolstad Golf Course on Sept. 27.

Aaron Bartnik runs the final stretch of the Roy Griak Invitational at Les Bolstad Golf Course on Sept. 27.

Thomas Jaakola

The men’s cross country team looked like they would have a disappointing year after a slow start.
 
The team placed only 24th out of 42 teams at the Pre-National meet on Oct. 17, missing a chance to prove itself against quality competition.
 
Redshirt senior Aaron Bartnik said the team held an athletes-only meeting immediately after the meet to get the runners to reach for a higher standard.
 
The Gophers then managed to start running better and are now headed to the NCAA Championships for the first time as a team since 2011.
 
“Our performances have certainly improved; the talent was always there,” Bartnik said. “At the beginning of the season we didn’t have guys racing well. No one was happy with the performances that we had, and I think that [the meeting] helped encourage people, and things turned around from there.”
 
The Gophers took third in the Big Ten Championships after the team meeting, with Bartnik and redshirt senior Adam Zutz leading the way. The meet marked only the fourth time the Gophers had three or more runners earn All-Conference honors.
 
“We had to change our mindset about halfway through the season,” Zutz said. “We knew we had the potential to have a really good season, but I think [Pre-Nationals] was a wake-up call for us, and we realized we had to focus a lot more and be a lot more diligent with how we were approaching practice and races.” 
 
The team ran even better last week at the NCAA Midwest Regional, finishing in second place overall. Four Minnesota runners also picked up All-Region honors at the event.
 
“I think sometimes it takes some time for the work that’s put in to come out and show itself in racing,” said head coach Steve Plasencia, who was named the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches’ Association Midwest Region Coach of the Year on Tuesday. “I know that with the leadership we have, we had some guys working very diligently over the summer, and the summer training means a lot for what happens in the fall.”
 
Bartnik said part of the team’s improvement came from the Gophers in-race tactics. He said running as a team and in a pack at the regional meet was a huge advantage for the Gophers, while many other competitors raced by themselves.
 
The team was also ready for the longer NCAA Regional race, which is 10 kilometers, Plasencia said. All the Gophers’ other races during the year were six or eight kilometers.
 
“Some teams are fearful of the extra [two kilometers], but I don’t think our guys are, so I think that that kind of pays you back a little bit,” Plasencia said. “Last year towards the end of the year, the team showed that they had some potential and abilities, and I think this year later in the year they realized a lot of that.”
 
When the Gophers run 10 kilometers again at the NCAA Championships, they plan on building on what they’ve been doing during their last few meets.
 
“Other people around the country might have seen us taking second at regionals as kind of a big surprise and might not be expecting a lot from us down in Louisville,” Zutz said. “But I think our team really wants to kind of prove ourselves, show them what we’re made of and really show them that we are a quality program here at Minnesota.”