Gophers using meets to settle back of pack before NCAAs

Minnesota is still trying to settle on its last three runners for the meet.

by Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s men’s cross country team’s seventh-place performance Saturday at the Roy Griak Invitational bumped the Gophers up five spots in the current top 30 poll to No. 20.

But it was the performance of another team in the Big Ten that had coach Steve Plasencia taking notice.

“When I looked at Michigan at the Griak, their sixth, seventh, eighth were right on the tail of their fifth,” Plasencia said. “That gives you a pretty good indication of their depth.”

While the Gophers have been strong at the top so far – with solid showings from senior Ryan Malmin, junior David VanOrsdel, sophomore Justin Grunewald and freshman Chris Rombough – Minnesota is still looking for that sort of depth at this early juncture in the season.

This isn’t a problem at the moment, as the team is allowed to send a traveling roster of 12. However, that number drops to nine for the Big Tens and seven and an alternate for the NCAA Regionals.

And even when you factor in the returns of injured senior Erik Grumstrup and junior Antonio Vega, that would still leave the Gophers two short of filling out a regional roster.

Plasencia said the group competing to fill these slots is essentially wide open.

“I think that’s a fair thing to say,” he said. “There’s some people within that group who have shown more than others.”

A group of freshmen – Ben Puhl, Seijen Takamura and Luke Walker – all of whom redshirted last season, appears to be in the early lead for those spots. The three were the fifth, sixth and seventh place finishers for Minnesota at the Griak.

Walker said it’s nice that the results have been coming after all the work put in last season.

“We were in the trenches (last season), doing all the dirty work,” he said. “Just working all the time, training all the time, for really no results that would be written up in the paper.”

The group said they weren’t surprised they have been experiencing the early success together.

“That says something about us being close and trusting each other and having confidence in each other,” Walker said. “We’ve all scraped each other off the ground and picked each other up numerous times.”

Plasencia mentioned Puhl and Takamura as two of the top candidates to fill those spots, which poses the question: What would happen in the event that one of the runners in that group gets left out?

Puhl said there would be some disappointment but it wouldn’t be anything personal.

As Takamura said, the team comes first. And helping it continue to move up the polls.

“As much as running is an individual thing, it’s definitely a team thing for us,” he said. “It’s all about the team and all about progressing the program.”