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SportsTuesday Column: The best team on this campus

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Greg Garno, Managing Sports Editor
Published September 1, 2014

DEXTER, Mich. — The best team on campus sets up a locker room at two picnic tables under a gazebo. There are no showers or expensive training rooms. You probably haven’t or won’t see their home course.

The coach of the best team on campus rides his bike while he works. He wears a windbreaker with a ball cap, but you wouldn’t recognize his face.

His best runners are just over five feet. You probably wouldn’t think twice if they walked past you on the Diag.

The best team on campus is ranked first in the nation and could win its first national championship in program history. But you might have gone the rest of the year without ever knowing a thing about them.

And they wouldn’t care.

Because the best team on this campus has never been in the spotlight. And it won’t act any differently now that it is.

The Michigan women’s cross country team, after all, isn’t a team that brings in TV money or draws large fan bases. Cross country itself has never attracted attention because why would anyone want to watch a three-mile race when they could watch people hitting each other?

Most often, fans watch runners go by for a fleeting moment, and then silence. In the Wolverines’ only home meet of the season — albeit, more a scrimmage than invitational — the men’s and women’s teams might have collectively drawn approximately 100 people. Most of them were parents.

They won’t have an opportunity to run out in front of 100,000 fans screaming with the marching band playing, nor will they have to worry about their reaction after a bad race. But they do hug their parents, find friends and laugh with teammates after the race.

There won’t be interviews from ESPN on camera or a feature writer from Sports Illustrated asking about their life history.

There won’t even be the pressure of winning the next race because almost all races are non-scoring until the end of the season.

That won’t make a difference, because the best team on campus knows nothing else.

Instead, they know how to run fast and what it takes to win.

“It’s just attention to detail,” said coach Mike McGuire. “Acting on what we’re talking about. It’s easy to want to be good. The tough part is actually following through on it. It’s more than just the two or two and a half hours that they’re on practice on a daily basis.”

So McGuire’s team runs its first meet of the season against itself even if there are no fans, aiming to pack up together, not just race all out. They run through the first mile together, then break away.

With 200 meters to go, sophomore Erin Finn, the reigning Big Ten Athlete of Year and Freshman of the Year, was cruising to a first-place finish. But junior Shannon Osika was in an all-out sprint behind her until she eventually caught up with 50 meters to go.

There were no lines of fans along the finish line, and Finn didn’t hear the crowd pointing out Osika closing on her.

When Finn did recognize her competition, the pair met stride for stride to an actual photo finish. Neither girl knew Osika won, though. They hadn’t seen results after their race. They cooled down with everyone else in the next step toward winning the national championship.

“Each of them can make the other one better, and they all have strengths that others can feed off of,” McGuire said. “The big thing is that they get along really well. We have a good balance between being competitive and being harmonious.”

These are the things that help make the Michigan women’s cross country team the best on the campus. Of course, it also helps that they return their top-10 runners after finishing fourth in the nation last season. And a coach in his 23rd season who has led his team to five top-six finishes and three straight regional titles in the last decade.

Coaches took note, and voted them as the No. 1 team in the nation — the first time in program history.

But you can probably guess how they reacted to that distinction.

“It’s pretty cool, but rankings don’t mean much,” Osika said. “Once we start racing, actions speak louder than words.”

Added McGuire: “It’s a prognostication, not a coronation. They know there’s work to be done.”

Or senior captain Brooke Handler: “We just talk about trying to follow the process and do everything we can to get where we need to be in November.”

This team may not win the national championship this year, and that’s OK, because they’ll come back next year to go through the same process.

And you likely won’t pay attention to them next year.

But this year, if only for this season, know that the best team on this campus is running by, and their coach is following on his bike.

Garno would love to talk about his own cross country career at ggarno@umich.edu or on Twitter: @G_Garno. And of course, if you're looking to follow the women’s cross country team, the Daily will have coverage.