Gophers runners 26th at chilly national meet

Brett Angel

Minnesota coach Steve Plasencia hesitated for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders when asked what he thought of his team’s 26th-place finish Monday at the NCAA Division I cross country championships.

“It wasn’t exceedingly exciting, it wasn’t exceedingly disappointing,” Plasencia said. “We were ranked 31st in the country, so I guess if you’re ranked 31st in the country and you finish 26th, you exceeded other people’s expectations.”

After watching the Gophers earn their seventh consecutive trip to the national meet in dramatic fashion by placing second at the NCAA Midwest Regional nine days prior, Plasencia said he had no expectations for Monday’s race. If he had, however, 26th likely would have been a realistic guess.

Ryan Malmin (69th overall) led a solid, if unspectacular, performance by Minnesota at the Irv Warren Memorial Golf Course, navigating the 10-kilometer course, about 6.2 miles, in a time of 30:47. Senior Luke Mullranin (93rd, 31:01) and redshirt freshman Antonio Vega (110th, 31:09) also turned in strong performances for the Gophers on a sunny but cold day in northern Iowa.

The temperature during the race was a brisk 21 degrees, and 15 to 20 mile per hour winds made it feel like single digits. But Minnesota’s runners – who wore long sleeves and stocking caps – weren’t about to use the harsh conditions as an excuse.

“The weather wasn’t that big of an issue,” Mullranin said. “Once we got started, we kind of forgot about that and it was just another race.”

Mullranin acknowledged he was probably biased, coming from a Minneapolis climate that received close to 6 inches of snow last weekend.

“We were probably the only team that got to drive south to come to this thing,” he said.

Erik Grumstrup (137th, 31:27) and Michael Bialick (148th, 31:32) rounded out the top five for Minnesota, which finished 17th at the NCAA championships last year. The Gophers finished with 557 points – better than five schools in the 31-team field – but failed to top any of the other four Big Ten teams competing.

Even though Plasencia was far from thrilled by what he saw, he admitted to being pleased.

“You get into big meets like this and the wheels can come off,” Plasencia said. “This group hung together and stayed tough throughout.”

Even without its best runner, Andrew Carlson – sidelined all season with a hip injury – it seemed for a while that Minnesota might achieve its goal of finishing in the nation’s top 20.

Vega got out to a fast start and was the Gophers’ lead runner through the first five kilometers before fading in the race’s later stages.

“It was an experience, that’s for sure,” Vega said of his first national championship meet. “I knew it was going to be fast, but I didn’t think it was going to be quite as fast as it was. It really caught me off guard, and I got in over my head a little bit early on.”

Though solid pack running by its three through five runners allowed Minnesota to be successful at the regional meet, the Gophers quickly realized the difficulty of competing against the country’s best programs without a true lead runner.

“The other races just aren’t the same as this one,” Malmin said. “Nothing can compare to the big show here.”

Still, Plasencia was encouraged by the fact that six of the seven Minnesota runners who competed Monday will return next season, in addition to a healthy Carlson. Mullranin is the only senior who will not be back next season.

“The goal is to get back (to nationals), and one of these years it’s all gong to come together,” said Carlson, who was cheering on his teammates. “This was a great year. We just could have used a little more depth.”

Stanford dominates

Stanford claimed both the men’s and women’s team titles for the second time in seven years. The Cardinals dominated the men’s race, finishing with 24 points, the second lowest total in the meet’s history. Wisconsin finished second, 150 points behind.

In the women’s race, Stanford (120 points) edged out Brigham Young by eight points.