Streak of six NCAA appearances on the line

Minnesota’s men’s cross country team recently spent more than a week in northern Minnesota training twice a day to prepare for regular season.

by Brett Angel

A quick glance at the 2002 season recap for Minnesota’s men’s cross country team would make it seem like the Gophers had it all figured out.

The team climbed as high as 13th in the national polls and earned its sixth straight trip to the NCAA championship meet, where it finished 17th overall – its second-best showing ever under coach Steve Plasencia.

But as good as the Big Ten competition is, Minnesota will have to get even better to keep its streak of consecutive NCAA appearances alive.

Seven teams from the Big Ten qualified for the national meet a year ago. Minnesota was third out of those seven teams.

“It’s probably the best front-running conference in the country,” Plasencia said. “And we’d like to be able to take another step.”

The Gophers finished strong at the end of 2002, but still had struggles, most notably at the Big Ten championships where Minnesota finished a disappointing fifth.

The bottom line is the Gophers rebounded in time for a good showing at the national meet, but Plasencia is hoping for more consistency in 2003.

“We were probably a better team on paper last year, but I’d say that this year’s team has more potential,” sophomore Ryan Malmin said.

Malmin was one of the pleasant surprises for the Gophers as a redshirt freshman last season, coming on strong toward the end of the year and placing 74th overall – second for the Gophers – in his first NCAA meet.

Plasencia can also count on the senior leadership and veteran experience of Andrew Carlson, who finished 32nd at the NCAAs.

Carlson, the 2002 NCAA

Midwest runner of the year, also became the first All-American from Minnesota since Dave Morrison in 1984.

The leadership Carlson brings is part of the reason the team has equally high expectations this fall.

“Good chemistry and good leadership are things that play a bigger role in cross country than people give credit to,” Plasencia said.

He is confident his team has both.

The Gophers lost seniors Will McComb, Neil Hanson, Toby Henkels and Andrew McKessock – all members of the team’s top seven in 2002 – and are counting on the emergence of some younger runners who to this point have showcased their talent more on the track than on the cross country course.

Junior Martin Robeck – eighth in the nation in the 1,500-meters – will be expected to step in and fill part of the void left by the departed seniors.

“I’ve challenged Marty a little bit to step in should be something he’s capable of,” Plasencia said.

Juniors Erik Grumstrup, Ryan Ford and Josh DoBell are also expected to contribute consistently.

“I think they’ll take it upon themselves to raise this team to a new level,” Carlson said.

The team recently spent more than a week in northern Minnesota training twice a day to prepare for the regular season, which begins at the BYU Autumn Classic in Provo, Utah, on Sept. 13.

After six straight trips to the NCAAs, Plasencia was asked if he was tempted to set the team goals any higher in 2003.

“We don’t take anything for granted, but we do look toward the NCAA meet as somewhere we’re going to be,” Plasencia said.

“I have a feeling that the guys on this team really want it so it’ll be fun to watch.”