Men’s X-country, track teams hit stride

by Jim Schortemeyer

The Minnesota men’s track and field and cross country teams share a few things: coaches, athletes and fortunes.
Last fall, the cross country team got the ball rolling with its first NCAA appearance since 1981, finishing 18th.
The track and field team followed that good result by winning both the indoor and outdoor Big Ten Championships. The outdoor victory was the team’s first outdoor championship since 1968.
Now both teams are left wondering how well they’ll do with the loss of several key seniors.
Seniors like Rick Obleman, who was a captain for the cross country team and a national qualifier for the track team. Or pole vaulters Tye Harvey and Vesa Rantanen, who were All-Americans six times while at Minnesota.
“It looks like it’s a tremendous deficit to overcome, and it is,” track coach Phil Lundin said. “But I’m naive enough to think we can do it.”

Cross Country
Sharing in Lundin’s loss of key seniors is cross country coach Steve Plasencia, who is also the distance coach for the track team. Plasencia’s cross country team made the jump from a ninth-place finish at the Big Ten championships in 1996 to fourth in 1997.
“I’d like to see us take a step,” Plasencia said. “We have to take steps bigger than going from ninth to fourth. If things go our way I’d like to beat a team we didn’t last year.”
Last year was the Gopher’s best season in recent history. The Minnesota runners were ranked as high as 22nd last fall, their first ranking in over ten years.
Plasencia is optimistic for several reasons. The Gophers are returning their top two runners from last year, Eric Pierce and Jeremy Polson. Pierce led all Gophers at the NCAA meet with a 44th-place finish, and Polson has been making strides in the off-season, according to coaches.
Another reason is the recruiting class coming to Minnesota. The Gophers will welcome Andy McKesock, the Canadian junior national champion in the 1500-meter run. McKesock will be joined by three in-state recruits, led by Erik Quam of Alexandria, who finished second at the cross country state meet last year.
Returning runner Josh Brang is cautiously optimistic about the team’s chances.
“I think we’ll be as good as last year, if not better,” Brang said.

Track and Field
One thing has been made clear by Phil Lundin about his track and field team: they’re not as good as last year.
With the loss of Harvey and Rantanen in the pole vault — an event where Minnesota earned 20 of their 134.5 points at the Big Ten outdoor championships — the Gophers can at least expect a tighter race next spring.
On the plus-side for Minnesota, most of the returning athletes are as solid as those who left. Staffan Strand leads a group of high-jumpers who have all cleared 7 feet, a major accomplishment for college jumpers. Strand has won four consecutive Big Ten high-jump titles, and has placed in the top four at the last four NCAA meets.
But not all Gophers had such a rosey spring. Pierce was hampered by two stress fractures in both legs, but still managed a top eight finish in the steeplechase.
“It was nothing like what I could have done,” Pierce said. “You feel kind of like a loser because you’re not doing as well as you can.”
But you won’t catch Pierce looking ahead to next spring.
“I try to look at short-term goals,” he said, “like not breaking my legs.”
Several Minnesota athletes saw their spring season hampered by injuries. Ben Jensen was third in the decathlon at the 1996 NCAA Championships, but pulled a hamstring several weeks before the Big Ten Championship and was unable to compete there or at the NCAA Championships.
Lundin admits he’ll be rooting for Jensen and his other athletes to have a healthier season than last year, and admits to a bias when watching his team.
“I can certainly say I enjoy watching all the seniors,” Lundin said. “You want those guys to excel even more because it’s their last chance.”
He’ll get his chance when the indoor season begins in January.