With two chances to run, men will split this weekend

Mark Remme

In an attempt to assemble the best unified squad in 2007, the Minnesota men’s cross country team is using a less than conventional approach this weekend: Coach Steve Plasencia is splitting his team up.

And he’s doing it in two states nowhere near each other.

Six members of the team are headed for a 5 p.m. Friday triangular in River Falls, Wisc. The Gophers will try their luck against Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The other 10 competing this weekend are off to Provo, Utah, where Minnesota will compete at Brigham Young’s annual Autumn Classic. It will be an early-season test for the Gophers as BYU was picked to win the Mountain West Conference as well as challenge for a national championship.

Plasencia will head to Utah while assistant coach Brad Wick will assume coaching responsibilities in River Falls.

“We’ll send our (top guys) to BYU,” Plasencia said. “Obviously BYU is a strong team with a lot of tradition so we’ll send our strongest team out there.”

But by that same token, Plasencia said the main reason for splitting the team up early in the year is to get running experience to everyone. By doing this, he said he anticipates seeing one or two that run in River Falls this weekend becoming pivotal parts to the Gophers’ success late in the season.

“It provides us an opportunity this weekend,” he said. “Getting everybody a chance to run; that’s a good situation. You kind of want that at the beginning of the year.”

That might be exemplified to the fullest during this campaign, one that junior Chris Rombough expects to be versatile from top to bottom.

“Right now, I think we’re looking really strong,” Rombough said. “And even though we lost Antonio Vega (to graduation), who was an All-American, I think we’ll be even stronger than we were last year.”

Rombough, an All-America selection in his own right from a year ago, said his only concern for the Gophers as they head into the Utah landscape is the altitude of the run.

“It will definitely pose some problems for a few guys,” he said. “I’ve gone through these races before and I know how altitude can affect you.”

Women train for Oz

Speaking of depth, women’s cross country coach Gary Wilson said his roster that’s fresh off an 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships last year is set for tighter finishes in the upcoming season.

“The gap we had between our three and four runners from last year has closed appreciatively,” Wilson said. “And we should see our five, six, seven and eight pound in right behind.”

The depth chart will get its first test this weekend on home soil. The Gophers will run in the Oz Memorial Run at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Les Bolstad Golf Course.

And between the competition like Drake, South Dakota State and North Dakota State, several teams Minnesota is quite familiar with over the past few years, team members are hopeful that this weekend is nothing short of a complete success.

“We’re pretty much expecting to dominate,” senior All-American Ladia Albertson-Junkans said. “We’re pretty confident in what we’ve seen out of ourselves in the past few weeks.”

Albertson-Junkans said the weekend will primarily be a chance to perfect the team’s preparation methods. In the meantime, it will give the Gophers the opportunity to see competition other than themselves – something more valuable than one might expect.

But for freshmen on the team, Wilson said the weekend will be getting them experience in their first 6K race.

“For the young kids who have never run the (6K race), it’s a mental game instead of a physical one,” Wilson said. “We’re throwing them on the roller coaster for the first time. At first they think, ‘Oh, lord, I’m running a 6K.’ And then they say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad.’ “