Home course advantage yields a pair of third places

David McCoy

Ladia Albertson-Junkans had to be carried into the medical tent. Danielle Ashford cried. They wrapped their arms around the mud-splashed bodies of their teammates as big smiles stretched across their faces.

After two weeks of “happiness, sadness, anxiety and hype,” Minnesota’s women’s cross country team emerged from its emotional roller coaster with a third-place finish and tied its highest finish ever at Saturday’s Big Ten Championships at Les Bolstad Golf Course.

Emily Brown led a pack of three Gophers runners. Brown placed third overall with a time of 21:11.74 while Lauren Williams took fifth and Albertson-Junkans, who collapsed after the race, took sixth.

“We expended a lot of energy this week,” Albertson-Junkans said. “And it takes a toll on your energy storage. But I tried to put it all out there because I knew my placement was imperative for the team to do well.”

The 11th-ranked Gophers’ third-place finish wasn’t a big surprise, as first place Michigan and second place Illinois both came into the meet ranked higher than Minnesota at No. 3 and No. 6, respectively.

But the team has handled a lot of adversity as of late, with equipment manager Jack Johnson facing terminal cancer and enduring chemotherapy treatments and coach Gary Wilson handling the responsibilities of taking him to the hospital.

“My volunteer assistant coach Sarah Hesser deserves a lot of kudos for keeping things together the last couple of weeks,” Wilson said.

A number of fans wore maroon and gold shirts that said “JACK” on the front. Johnson was named an honorary official for the event, which was muddy and wet from the morning rain.

Albertson-Junkans, who ate an entire apple “except the stem” to replenish her spent body after the race, said the team conserved energy and then poured it on just before the start of the fifth kilometer.

“Finishing third was solid, not a miracle,” Albertson-Junkans said. “Winning would have been a miracle, but we’re happy. Maybe our miracle is yet to come, huh?”

Altogether, Wilson said, third place was where his team expected to finish, so he was proud that it met its goal, saying that anytime a team takes third in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten, it can’t be disappointed.

But he said Ashford, a walk-on freshman, was disappointed in her performance and came to him in tears.

“She was like, ‘I’m sorry, can I still be on the team?’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about? Are you smoking dope? Of course.’ When you see effort like that, I’m very proud, very honored to be their coach.”

Men barely miss second

While the women ran their race first, several runners on Minnesota’s men’s cross country team realized that the soggy ground meant they needed bigger spikes in their shoes.

The team made its adjustments and then came out strong, taking third place, just one point behind Ohio State for second.

“We ran an OK race,” Minnesota’s Ryan Malmin said. “We went out fast, which is a necessary evil because if you go out slow you can lose position.”

Wisconsin won the meet for the seventh straight season. Simon Bairu won his third-straight Big Ten title with a time of 23:31.73.

Malmin said starting out quickly “took its toll” on the Gophers late in the race, which showed when Michigan State’s Jim Pancoast passed Minnesota’s Erik Grumstrup in the final few seconds.

“It’s just one of those things,” Grumstrup said. “Anybody at some point can say that about a race. I certainly thought about it. But it doesn’t matter what you think in retrospect.”

Grumstrup finished 34th overall, after teammates Antonio Vega (12th), Malmin (13th) Chris Rombough (17th) and David Van Orsdel (26th).