Vega leads young Minnesota squad

Vega finished 44th at the NCAA Championships last season.

Zach Eisendrath

Fifth-year senior Antonio Vega is one-of-a-kind on Minnesota’s men’s cross country team.

And that’s not just because he dresses himself in full soccer attire before and after every meet and is the only member of the team to run in soccer shorts, as opposed to the traditionally short running shorts.

“I guess you could say it almost looks like I’m ready to go out to a soccer practice when I’m at cross country, “Vega said.

The Gophers’ No. 1 runner is somewhat out of place on a team comprised of mostly underclassmen. Twelve members of Minnesota’s 19-man roster are either freshmen or sophomores.

The 2005 All-American is, in a sense, the only long-tenured runner on the team considering fellow senior David VanOrdsel transferred from Villanova after his sophomore season and has only been with the team for a little over a year.

Vega is just the ninth men’s cross country runner in Gophers’ history to be named an All-American and the third coached by Steve Plasencia.

“He brings a great work ethic with him,” Plasencia said of Vega. “He’s not immune to working hard and doing the extra things to improve himself.”

Plasencia said Vega gained confidence after a successful 2005 track season and his dedication has increased ever since.

However, Vega also credits much of his recent success to the new training regimen Plasencia placed him on. Instead of increasing his mileage each year, Vega now runs less miles to ensure he stays injury free. Mentally, Vega said he is also stronger and realizes he can compete with the top runners in the country.

As a sophomore, he finished 171st at the NCAA Championships with a time of 33:21.4. But, as a junior, he made a giant leap to 44th in the 10- kilometer race with a time of 30:24.1.

Even now, in his final season, there have been some major adjustments for the defending Midwest Regional Champion.

Vega lost many of his close friends from last year’s team due to graduation and he is now trying to fit in with the younger group of runners.

Vega said he respects everyone on the team, but admitted because of the age gap between runners, his relationship with most of his teammates ends after practice.

But perhaps he is starting to gel with his teammates more than he thinks. Along with VanOrdsel, he was elected captain by his teammates.

Vega has worked predominantly with Minnesota’s No. 2 runner, sophomore Chris Rombough and has found him to be a tremendous training partner this fall.

Rombough is just one of many younger runners that can learn a thing or two from Vega, according to VanOrdsel.

“The main thing that strikes me about Antonio is that he is extremely focused on what he’s doing and helps to set a good example so that we can do some good things as a team and some of the younger guys can learn from (him),” he said.

However, Vega said it is Rombough who has helped him. Vega said he is intense by nature and the younger, more relaxed Rombough helps calm him down.

Vega said he is not a vocal leader, rather, he said he hopes his actions make the most profound impact on his teammates.

“I kind of just like to lead by example,” he said. “I do my own thing and just kind of hope guys kind of see what I’m doing and go along with it.”

Minnesota’s young crop of runners is talented, but experienced guys like Vega are a good thing for any team, VanOrdsel said.

“Having guys around who have been around the block a few times is a good thing for the younger guys on the team,” he said.

Plasencia said he set his sights on Vega after hearing from a couple of high school coaches within the state that Vega might be diamond in the rough.

During his days at Tartan High School, Vega played on the soccer team and was the football team’s kicker. According to Plasencia, Vega only ran cross country as a side venture.

Now, it’s no longer a side venture, although Vega’s light workload this season might indicate otherwise.

However, his workload is about to increase dramatically.

The only race he has completed thus far this season has been the Roy Griak Invitational, where he helped the Gophers secure a second-place team finish after he placed 13th overall with a time of 24:56.

Vega will have his plate full this weekend when Minnesota travels to Bloomington, Ind., for the Big Ten Championships.

After finishing 13th at the Big Ten’s last year, Plasencia said he thinks Vega can finish in the top 10 at Sunday’s meet.

“This will be a weekend that will start to show what our season’s about and what his season’s about,” Plasencia said.

“I think things are going well for him. But really, the rubber meets the road, so to speak, starting this weekend.”

VanOrdsel said it is good to see someone as low-key as Vega achieve such great success.

“Being a cross country runner, you’re never going to be a very high-profile athlete,” he said. “That’s why it’s good to see a regular guy like Antonio do some special things and help us out in terms of our goals as a team.”