Men and women set for national championship in Indiana

Both teams qualified last week and will battle tough competition at nationals.

Max Sanders

The Gophers menâÄôs and womenâÄôs cross country teams will close out their seasons Monday in Indiana at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Making the NCAA Championships is becoming an annual tradition for both teams. Led by head coach Steve Plasencia , the menâÄôs team will be competing at the championships for the 12th time in the past 13 seasons. The womenâÄôs team is led by head coach Gary Wilson and will be making its fifth-straight appearance. Qualifying for the championship on the menâÄôs side proved to be difficult. Heading into the NCAA Midwest Regionals looking for a top-three finish, the Gophers finished fourth and were one of the last teams picked for an at-large berth into the meet. Plasencia had to make sure to balance the teamâÄôs excitement of making the tournament with the reality that the meet begins just eight days after the announcement. âÄúKind of have to balance that little bit of a high with the reality that things can come crashing down if weâÄôre not prepared to run, and weâÄôre going to have to be because itâÄôs a very tough field,âÄù he said. Highlighting the menâÄôs field are two west-coast schools, Oregon and Stanford. Oregon is the two-time defending NCAA Champion, but Stanford has been No. 1 in the cross-country rankings for most of this season. Minnesota is one of four Big Ten schools competing at nationals, joining Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. As for expectations, Plasencia is looking at how Minnesota compares to other teams within the region. âÄúOne of my goals for our team would be to fare strongly against those regional adversaries that weâÄôve been up against a few teams already this year,âÄù he said. The success of PlasenciaâÄôs squad today will likely hinge on the production it receives from the No. 5 runner. Mike McFarland and Derek Storkel have each filled that void in the past two races, and Plasencia is counting on McFarland, Storkel or sophomore Sean Olson to step up and take the fifth spot. âÄúBetween those guys, one of them has to be our fifth man,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúThe farther up that fifth man is, the better off weâÄôll be.âÄù One runner that Plasencia can count on is Hassan Mead . The junior is seeking to become just the second three-time All-American in the history of the Minnesota program, and Plasencia thinks the stellar season for Mead can continue in MondayâÄôs meet. âÄúWe want to be happy with the fact that he gets out hard and gets up with the pack he should be running with, and then see what happens from there,âÄù Plasencia said. On the womenâÄôs side, WilsonâÄôs team will look to continue an impressive NCAA Championship run which includes four consecutive top-12 finishes the past four meets . However, this year that streak will likely be placed in jeopardy, as the competition is among the best ever seen at championship. âÄúThis is probably the best and deepest field thatâÄôs ever been at the national meet,âÄù Wilson said. âÄúWe can run absolutely fantastic and still not be in the top 15; itâÄôs that deep.âÄù Leading the way for the women is Megan Duwell , who will run her final cross-country race for the Gophers on Monday. The senior finished 32nd at last yearâÄôs championship, and Wilson said she can do even better this year. âÄúI think sheâÄôs got every ability to be in the top 10 to 12,âÄù Wilson said. âÄúSheâÄôs on top of her game, sheâÄôs running well, sheâÄôs had a great season, obviously; IâÄôm going to tell her that top 15âÄôs got to be her goal.âÄù As for team expectations, Wilson said that in a field this deep all five runners have to perform at a high level. âÄúAt least five of us have to hit, and we have to hit really well. If we do, then we have a shot maybe at the top 10,âÄù Wilson said. âÄúIt would be great if we could be in the top 12, 13, in that area. You can run a great race in this meet and be 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th. ItâÄôs a loaded field.âÄù The men will compete at 11:08 a.m., with the women running at 11:58. The meet will be broadcast on the Versus television network.