Before Saturday, the last time Erin Finn ran a cross country race in a Michigan uniform was Oct. 18, 2014, making Saturday’s Commodore Classic in Nashville Finn’s first opportunity this season to contribute toward her team’s overall standing.
The impact of her return was recognized immediately. She finished 19 seconds faster than everyone else to lead the No. 12 Michigan women’s cross country team to a first-place finish.
“(Erin’s return) is huge,” said Michigan coach Mike McGuire. “Erin is someone who is going to impact the front of any race up until the national meet, so it’s really important that we keep her healthy throughout the course of the fall. We ran her and (senior Shannon Osika) the first meet unattached, but we’re planning all systems go now.”
The Wolverines behind Finn were impressive as well — the four other runners whose finishes factored into the team score all placed in the top 20. Osika finished fifth with a time of 17:10, redshirt sophomore Gina Sereno followed in seventh place with a time of 17:14, fifth-year senior Anna Pasternak placed ninth with a time of 17:18, and redshirt sophomore Sophie Linn crossed the finish line in 18th place with a time of 17:31. The close proximity of the times was a result of the team trying to stay together in groups as best as possible.
Finn and McGuire saw a difference in how well the team ran Saturday compared to its race at the EMU Celebration two weeks ago. Their first meet wasn’t a disappointment, but the team noticed a difference in its cohesiveness trying to run as multiple units.
“We did a really nice job of grouping up,” McGuire said. “I thought some people were remarkably better than they were their first time out, with probably Gina Sereno being at the top as someone who was the most improved from the race before.”
Added Finn: “I think the extended training (practice) and really being motivated to help one another (contributed to our performance). We talked about how if you feel bad in one part of a race, you can rely on your teammates to get you through that bad part until you’re feeling good again.”
Three other Michigan runners — redshirt freshman Claire Borchers, freshman Kayla Keane and redshirt sophomore Jaimie Phelan — finished in the top 25, placing ahead of many competitors from other schools. While 16 of the 21 Wolverines didn’t impact the score, all of them finished in the top 100 out of a field of 244.
“They have confidence in their training and confidence in their teammates,” McGuire said. “They’re going out executing race plans with their teammates around them. We had some nice subgroups of people throughout the race. Each subgroup was pushing each other and executing the plan we tried to establish for them.”
Michigan had the biggest presence toward the top of the pack by a wide margin, as it beat every other team by at least 53 points. The Wolverines compiled 39 points, and the next-closest team, host No. 22 Vanderbilt, earned 92 points. Michigan was a clear outlier amongst the 21 other teams in an otherwise crowded competition.
The Wolverines didn’t face the stiffest competition, but they did race on one of the tougher courses they’ll run on this year, giving the team valuable experience for the remainder of the season.
“We’ll run into the same type of course (next meet),” McGuire said. “This course is a little bit tougher. We ran in a county park, it’s not golf-course footing, and it’s similar to what we’ll have in Louisville in October and then when we go down (to Louisville) for the national meet.”
The experience and the continued improvement — all five scoring runners ran season-bests Saturday — will help Michigan contend in every meet, even as the caliber of competition begins to elevate.
With a healthy Finn leading the pack, first-place team finishes will continue to be within reach.
“Wearing the block ‘M’ is such an honor,” Finn said. “I want to keep being smart so I can wear this as long as possible. This was also a few of my teammates’ first times in uniform, so that was exciting to share that with them.”