Grunewald’s decision not quickly forgotten

One thing Minnesota men’s cross country runner Justin Grunewald might have learned this season is you can’t always depend on plans going as expected.

Grunewald, a senior who spent much of the semester preparing for the Medical College Admission Test, asked Gophers coach Steve Plasencia last summer if he could redshirt this season to focus on the test as well as an internship.

Not feeling like he could dedicate himself fully to running while taking care of his studying, Grunewald was prepared to sit out the season and use his final year of cross country eligibility next year.

But that’s not how it turned out, as Grunewald will be suited up for the Gophers as they compete in the NCAA Championships today at Terre Haute, Ind. Start time is scheduled for 11:08 a.m.

The Gophers fell into injury trouble just after the Roy Griak Invitational in late September. Sophomores Matt Barrett and Mike Torchia battled injuries for much of the year and weren’t able to compete heading into the NCAA prenational meet and the Big Ten Championships.

“I wrote Justin a long e-mail telling him we were in a spot,” Plasencia said. “I asked him if he would consider giving up his last year of eligibility.”

Plasencia said he was hesitant to ask such a favor, but he knew with the injuries plaguing the team there weren’t many options. He said Grunewald got back to him immediately with a decision.

“I wasn’t really expecting it,” Grunewald said. “But this is the best team I’ve been around. It’s nice to contribute, and this year it seemed like we had a shot.”

Grunewald took an unorthodox approach to a cross country season. He didn’t compete in the first meets of the year, then thrust himself into the prenationals and the Big Ten competition.

Since joining the active roster, he’s become an undeniable presence. Teammates are conscious of his contributions to the team and his unselfish act of giving up his last full year for the team.

“I was surprised, but it was a good surprise,” junior Chris Rombough said. “It was big. He probably saves us 20 to 30 points each week.”

Grunewald stepped in and became a strong contributor as a fourth runner. He’s become known within the program as being selfless.

“From my standpoint I’m very proud of him,” Plasencia said. “Another guy would’ve asked, ‘what about me and my plans?’ “

So when Grunewald steps up to the line and begins what will be his final cross country meet of his collegiate career, he’ll be helping his six other teammates competing try to achieve one collective goal at the expense of his previous plans.

Sure, he has two years of track eligibility left, so his days as a college athlete aren’t over yet.

But when it comes to cross country, Grunewald’s mark on the program will be team first. No exceptions.

“It’s all about what’s best for the team in the end,” Grunewald said. “I haven’t second-guessed it yet. On Monday, anything can happen.”