Everything falling in line for cross country

Matt Anderson

The rest of the cross country world obviously wasn’t impressed before the season started.

Minnesota’s women’s cross country team began the year unranked, coming off its third straight season without an appearance at the NCAA Championships.

Then the Gophers topped five ranked teams en route to a second-place finish at the Roy Griak Invitational in late September.

That’s when the nation took notice, with Minnesota entering the national polls at No. 11, where the team currently stands.

But the Gophers, who are talking about winning a Big Ten title this weekend on their home course, knew they had something special before anyone else knew.

“Last cross country season, we had a complete change in the team chemistry, the feel of the team,” said senior Lauren Williams, consistently a top-three runner for Minnesota this year. “It felt like a completely different team from the year before.

“We were having fun. People weren’t so competitive with each other. People weren’t dropping out of races because they didn’t think they could finish. We were pushing to another level that we hadn’t pushed to before.”

Minnesota then exceeded expectations in the winter and spring track seasons, taking third and fourth at the Big Ten meets, respectively.

Coach Gary Wilson said those finishes raised the team’s internal expectations heading into this fall’s cross country season.

“I just think that really got kids thinking, Wow, we’re not only pretty talented, but we’re young, and we’re enthusiastic and we’ve got all these kids back,” Wilson said. “And we redshirted some kids, and we still did that well. And then all of a sudden, they’re going, Wow, we can really do something.”

With the team gelling this season and the Big Ten Cross Country Championships taking place Sunday in St. Paul, it seems as though everything is coming together for Minnesota to make a run at its first conference championship.

Williams said the nature of the course should provide the Gophers with a real home-course advantage this weekend at Les Bolstad Golf Course.

“Our course is definitely one of the toughest courses in the Big Ten, and we know that course down to a tee,” Williams said. “We know every turn, every hill, every incline, where to move. And the top two teams coming into this – Michigan and Illinois – have never run our course before.”

But the Big Ten meet represents just one part of the team’s goals heading down the season’s home stretch. The NCAA Midwest Regional takes place Nov. 12, and the NCAA Championships follow a week and a half later.

Williams and her classmate Harper McConnell – both in the team’s top four for each race this year – entered a Minnesota program which had made five consecutive NCAA meets. Now seniors, they’re both still trying to get there for the first time.

Wilson said the mind-set of his team should help not only to keep this year’s seniors from being the first group since 1993’s incoming freshman class to miss out entirely on the national meet, but also to help the Gophers do well once they get there.

“It’s not, Well, we’re going to run the Big Ten meet and that’s great, or We can feel great about being fifth in the Big Ten but we still make nationals,” he said. “No, they want to do well every single step out, and they’ve proved that.”

With what the team has already proved this season, the only thing the Gophers could do to surprise down the stretch would be not achieve their goals.

– Matt Anderson welcomes comments at [email protected]