Deep Gophers expect top-15 finish at NCAA meet by season’s end

They finished 26th at last season’s national meet, but they have Andrew Carlson back.

Ben Goessling

Martin Robeck talks about the prospect of Minnesota men’s cross country team’s highest NCAA finish in five years like it’s an item he needs to cross off his grocery list.

Buy green hair dye, grab a gallon of milk – oh, and throw in a top-15 finish at the national meet if there’s one lying around.

But the matter-of-factness with which the emerald-domed senior discusses the team’s chances shows just how confident the Gophers are about this season.

“We’ve got everybody back, so there’s no reason why we can’t finish top-15 at the NCAA meet,” he said. “It should be a very attainable goal.”

Minnesota returns six of its top seven runners from a squad that placed 26th at the NCAA Championships last year, and it also retains the services of Andrew Carlson, a fifth-year senior who was an All-American in 2002 but missed last year with a sports-related hernia.

In fact, the Gophers are so deep that coach Steve Plasencia is redshirting senior Erik Grumstrup – saving him for the 2005 season, when the Gophers will be greener than Robeck’s hair.

“We’ve got the Big Ten Championships here next year, so we don’t want to be totally young,” he said. “But we’re not overlooking this year. Carlson is among the strongest runners I’ve had.”

Carlson won the Midwest Region championships in 2002 and finished 32nd at the NCAA meet.

But the Fargo, N.D., native’s absence last season left the Gophers with a group led by then-sophomore Ryan Malmin and freshman Antonio Vega.

“We lacked a number one last year,” said senior Mike Bialick. “We’ve all been there, and we’ve all got big-meet experience, but it will help to have a guy who’s been up front.”

As always, a Big Ten Championship looms as more of a pipe dream than anything – thanks to the monster four hours to the east on Interstate 94. Wisconsin has won the last five Big Ten Championships and returns 2002 individual champion Matt Tegenkamp, who raced only once last year due to injuries.

Plasencia said the Gophers should be in the mix with Michigan and Indiana for spots in the top three, but he carefully avoided mentioning Wisconsin as a team in the Gophers’ class.

“This is probably the strongest group they’ve ever had,” Plasencia said. “They’re definitely on top, but I think we can compete with the rest.”

In effect, however, that leaves the NCAA meet as the team’s biggest goal, and with the championship being contested at Indiana State – where Minnesota finished 17th at the 2002 national meet – there’s no room for excuses this year.

This fact is as easy to see as the hair of the man who said it.

“There’s a little more urgency this year,” Robeck said. “Even if everybody else stays where they are, we’ll be better because we add Andrew. This year should be better than the past.”