Health issues remain key for team hoping to ease into upper echelon of the Big Ten

Several of the Gophers’ leaders are hoping for a pain-free and successful year.

David McCoy

Minnesota women’s cross country coach Gary Wilson is known for being verbose.

But he needs just two words to describe how he expects his team to turn out, barring anything unforeseen, by the time the postseason rolls around: dang good.

The 29th-ranked Gophers are returning eight letter winners to this year’s squad, and they are excited and optimistic about their chances at a top-three finish at the Big Ten Championships.

In five of the last six years, Wilson’s team has finished fourth or higher at the Big Ten Championships. He said he expects nothing less this year.

“I think this team has got every ability to be an upper-three team, but its going to depend on how everyone’s recovery progresses,” he said.

“It’s just going to depend (on) if we can stay healthy and focused.”

Wilson said he is also looking forward to seeing how his walk-ons will progress.

Highlighting the list of this year’s freshmen is Stillwater, Minn., native Ladia Albertson-Junkans, who placed sixth at Saturday’s Oz Memorial Run.

Former walk-on Zoe Nagell, last year’s team’s most valuable runner, is expected to be a major contributor to the Gophers’ success, as well. Nagell won Minnesota’s intrasquad race, leading the entire time, and also placed third on Saturday.

Minnesota’s main goal this year is to return to the NCAA Championships, a place that they have not been since 2002. That was the last time, before this year, that Darja Vasiljeva ran a race.

Vasiljeva, the owner of the top-three 6k times in school history, was the first Gopher to finish in every meet in 2002. She missed the entire season last year with an injury.

“I’m glad to be back racing, competing, and running for the team again,” she said.

Another key runner who is coming off an injury, Emily Brown, said she isn’t worried about how her health problems will affect the team. She didn’t finish the race Saturday.

“There are a lot of people on this team who could do better than I could,” she said. “I’m just going to try my best, but there are a lot of girls here that can easily pick up any slack that I’ve left behind.”

Wilson said he is impressed so far with the team’s chemistry.

“The attitude is better on this team than it’s been in the last two years,” he said. “Everybody’s connected, the freshmen are interacting with the upperclass kids and the team chemistry is great.”

Injuries are the biggest question mark for this year’s team, but Wilson said he expects his team to overcome their problems and peak at just the right time.

“We’ve just got to guard against setbacks like we’ve had the last couple years,” he said.