Canceled season brings challenges, opportunities for cross country

Coaches and athletes are finding ways to make the most of a fall filled only with training.

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Redshirt Junior Owen Hoeft approaches an intersection with his teammates at the Les Bolstad Golf Course on Friday, Sep. 6, 2019. Both Men's and Women's teams earned first place in the meet. 

Brendan O'Brien

How Minnesota coaches and runners felt after hearing the 2020 cross country season was canceled can be summed by one simple phrase: disappointed but understanding.

“It was a disappointment,” men’s head coach Steve Plasencia said. “I felt like the guys we have together this year was a good group, and it’s no guarantee you can hold this group together for another year. It was a disappointment not so much for myself but for the athletes, especially for those guys who are in a fifth year.”

The fall was projected to be filled with success as both the men’s and women’s teams were to return several runners from 2019. The women’s team also was coming off an appearance at the NCAA Championship meet in November.

The summer months of training generally provided a sense of normalcy for the teams, given runners typically train separately at home or close to campus before team training begins. So the team proceeded as normal but still had a backup plan in case the seemingly inevitable cancellation of the season were to happen.

Like for all other Big Ten fall sports, the cancellation of cross country was announced a few weeks ago, forcing Plasencia and women’s head coach Sarah Hopkins to evaluate the best way to approach training for the next few months with no meets in the near future to prepare for. Both Hopkins and Plasencia said while this time can be challenging as a coach, it has been helpful for each of them to remember their purpose and use this time to try new things with the teams.

“This period of time calls for leadership,” Plasencia said. “It helps you redefine or reawaken what your values are, and I have a firm belief in the life lessons that distance running teaches young men and women: the lessons of dedication, consistency and perseverance.”

“I’m actually super excited in a weird way because I’ve never in my coaching years had a time when I have a whole three or four months with the team and actually meet with them every single day and not had to worry about racing,” Hopkins said. “We can reset a bit and work on some of the finer points and details that get lost when you’re in the [middle] of the season.”

As for the athletes, both teams returned to campus and are training together after going through a testing period and distanced training. Redshirt senior Owen Hoeft said he was excited to have some normal training again with the team but admitted it was disappointing not being able to compete in the fall.

“It was obviously tough,” Hoeft said. “I came in with a big class of freshmen, and we’ve all had this one season in the back of our minds for five years now.”

With the cancellation of fall sports, there have been questions about the possibility of having a delayed season for sports like football. Hopkins mentioned the possibility of having a cross country season if the indoor track and field season were to be canceled in the spring but prefaced that by saying she is preparing for the next cross country season to be in the fall of 2021.