After missing NCAA’s last season, Gophers on a mission to set things straight

Minnesota failed to qualify for the NCAA meet for the first time in nine years last season.

Mark Remme

Antonio Vega had more than enough reason to join the Minnesota men’s cross country team when they recruited him out of high school.

Vega, who would become an All-American with the Gophers, said he was attracted to a mix of being a Minnesota native as well as the impressive run of consecutive NCAA appearances by the team.

That stretch would reach nine years leading into his senior season last year, and that would be where it would end. Despite being in the national spotlight for nearly a decade, it was Vega’s senior campaign that proved to be the conclusion of a rather impressive stretch.

“I was pretty shocked when it didn’t happen,” Vega said. “It was like, ‘whoa, did that really just happen?’ Everything else leading up to the (regional) meet was better than any team I’d ever been on.”

Only one member of the Gophers’ squad – sophomore Chris Rombough – went to nationals last season. The rest were forced to face the simple fact that the team perhaps overlooked one small obstacle in the way.

Vega said the team fell victim of “expecting to go.”

Then-freshman Ben Kampf said the crew thought they were “guaranteed” a spot in the NCAAs.

Rombough, now a junior and the reigning Big Ten champion, said it was a lonely trip without his team.

But perhaps the silver lining comes a year later after such a disappointing end to the campaign, an unfortunate sidenote for Vega who no longer has eligibility.

“The experience that we got from (missing the NCAAs) makes us a little bit more cautious and makes us not take things for granted,” coach Steve Plasencia said. “It’s a gut check for us.”

If last weekend’s performance in Provo, Utah, is any indication, Plasencia looks to be correct.

The Gophers won for the first time at Brigham Young’s Autumn Classic, a traditional sure-fire second place finish in recent years.

They did it with a team that Kampf and Rombough have tabbed on separate occasions as richer in talent than years past.

It seems team members gained a greater appreciation for earned success, not a right-of-passage to national competition.

“It was a whole group thing,” Kampf said. “We trained a little bit smarter this year so we can compete at the end of the year. It was both physical and mental (preparation). It was hard watching (the NCAAs) on TV last year.”

Kampf said in order to get back to the NCAA Championships for the 10th time in Plasencia’s 12-year stint at Minnesota, the team – as well as himself individually – will rely heavily on the one teammate who got there last season.

Rombough, who won the BYU Autumn Classic last week, will be called upon to lead.

“I live with Chris and have been able to train with him all year,” Kampf said. “He’s a really good leader. He shows us what we need to do now.”

Rombough would seemingly appreciate the company if he returns to the national meet, considering his lonesome trip last year.

“One of the things with the team not making it last year is it

was a bummer not having them join me,” Rombough said last week. “Everyone wanted to be there last year at nationals and unfortunately they weren’t.”

As for Vega, who is currently training with Team USA Minnesota to improve his long-distance running, he’s keeping close tabs on his former squad. And judging by last season’s end, he said he’s seen necessary adjustments going into this season’s competitive play.

“From seeing the guys over the summer (it looked like last season) was a reality check, that’s for sure,” he said. “Everyone knows they’d better be in shape when the meets start to matter in October.”