Gophers head to Champaign for Big Ten Championships

Both the men’s and women’s teams finished third at last year’s conference meet.

Dane Mizutani

The No. 12 Minnesota menâÄôs cross country team will travel to Champaign, Ill., this weekend to compete in the Big Ten Championships.

The Gophers finished third in last yearâÄôs conference meet running without All-American Hassan Mead.

Mead sat out the entire 2010-11 season with an Achilles tendon injury paired with a collapsed lung. This year, he will attempt to take back the Big Ten title he never officially lost.

The last two times Mead ran in the conference meet âÄî 2008 and 2009 âÄî he won the Big Ten individual title.

âÄúI think some people would consider him the favorite âĦ but thereâÄôs going to be guys that are ready to go,âÄù menâÄôs head coach Steve Plasencia said. âÄúHeâÄôs going to have to go out there and earn whatever spot he gets.âÄù

While MeadâÄôs presence should alleviate some of the pressure from other runners on the team, Pieter Gagnon and Andrew Larsen have their own Big Ten successes to draw on.

Gagnon was the GophersâÄô third finisher at the 2010 meet and Larsen was the fifth.

âÄúBoth Gagnon and Larsen have had promising experience at the Big Ten,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúThey should have confidence going into the race and have a feel of what it looks like.âÄù

MinnesotaâÄôs experience is a tool it will use in attempt to dethrone No. 2 Wisconsin.

The Badgers have won 12 consecutive Big Ten team titles and will again be the favorite heading into the weekend.

Plasencia said he doesnâÄôt want his team to dwell on WisconsinâÄôs decade of dominance within the sport, though.

âÄúThe Big Ten meet is all about competing with opponents,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúIf you see a guy with a green jersey ahead of you, you have to have him. If you see a guy with a red jersey, you have to have him. ThatâÄôs what makes this meet so fun.âÄù

Paul Hilsen, Travis Burkstrand Bob Nicolls, Steve Sulkin, Erik Truedson and Marcus Paulson will join Mead, Gagnon and Larsen as the nine runners competing in Champaign.

Women seek Big Ten success

When the Gophers womenâÄôs cross country team lines up at the start of the Big Ten Championships this weekend in Champaign, Ill., they will know they must start faster.

At the Adidas Invitational two weeks ago, the team started slowly in the first kilometer of the flat course and could not work its way back up to the front of the pack, according to womenâÄôs head coach Gary Wilson.

That wonâÄôt be the case this weekend, Wilson said.

âÄúTheyâÄôre going to get out a little quicker this weekend, but I told them, âÄòYou put yourself in a position to dog the other teams every step of the way,âÄôâÄù Wilson said.

âÄúI said, âÄòI donâÄôt want you way up in leading because nobody cares what you do at the first kilometer mark, but I donâÄôt want you chasing through the crowd.âÄô ItâÄôs their time and the only thing they can do is put themselves in a position to close well. We canâÄôt play big time catch-up in this race.âÄù

All-American Steph Price finished second at last yearâÄôs Big Ten meet and is one of the favorites entering this weekend.

Her goal the entire season was to be in good shape, but not in great shape early, as it would give her room to grow throughout the season.

Wilson said he thinks she is exactly where she needs to be entering the conference meet.

âÄúShe said she feels great and feels like sheâÄôs ready to go and she is,âÄù Wilson said. âÄúSheâÄôs on top of her game right now. But this is the Big Ten meet and there are a ton of All-Americans in the field.âÄù

Amid the densely competitive field, Wilson said he still wants his team to focus on running together and finishing close to each other.

âÄúOur goal is to pack it up, let Steph do her job, and then pack it up as a group and be committed to closing the deal,âÄù Wilson said. âÄúIf you take care of the process, good things will happen. If you donâÄôt take care of the process and think way ahead in a race âĦ then youâÄôre not concentrating on what you need to do step after step after step.âÄù