There were five minutes before the gun sounded when the Michigan men’s cross country team huddled together. Wolverine coach Kevin Sullivan was doing his part to get the team mentally ready for the task at hand — to prove the pre-meet rank of No. 19 wrong.
Michigan gathered together like it always does before a race to preach the game plan and remain calm ahead of the excitement of the race. To the casual observer, it may seem to be an odd sight. Cross country is not typically considered a team sport, but for the Wolverines, teamwork and pack running are the name of the game.
This approach was boldly apparent at the Nuttycombe Invitational in Madison, Wis., where all five of the runners who scored for the meet finished within 22.5 seconds of one another. In fact, the spread was so tight for Michigan that the times between the Wolverines’ first and seventh runners was closer than all but two teams’ first through fifth competitors.
“We talked about it beforehand,” said redshirt sophomore Jacob Lee. “We wanted to try to find each other because, you know, when the gun goes off, we kinda get dispersed, we want to try to find each other, try to pump each other up, work together, constantly move up throughout the pack, and that’s what we did really well, and that’s what we try to do in practice too. We try to work as a unit.”
Leading that unit for Michigan were Lee and sophomore Jack Aho, who finished 58th and 61st at the race, respectively. Lee and Aho first saw the course last year when they finished second and third at the Invitational’s B race.
Getting as much exposure to the course as possible is paramount for the Wolverines. The Thomas Zimmer Championship Course will serve as the sight of this year’s Cross Country National Championships, and Michigan will be back in just two short weeks for the Pre-National Invitational.
“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to be at Wisconsin at some point before the national championship,” Lee said. “So we get a sense of how the course runs, what the layout’s like, and certainly being in a field like we did this weekend, we got a feel of a national championship type field before we even get to the national championships.”
However, due to the team’s youth, it might be a difficult road ahead en route to a final date with the Zimmer Course in just a couple months. After losing star power with the departures of Ben Flanagan, Connor Mora and others, this young Michigan team has had to put in extra effort in order to maintain the standard of success.
So far, the team has been able to do just that with late-race surges and patience. After the first two kilometers of the race, the Wolverines started things conservatively and were sitting in 25th place. After quickly finding their teammates in the pack, the team slowly began to creep toward its 13th place finish. Highlighting the patience and perseverance of the team’s performance was redshirt junior Ben Hill, who jumped up twenty spots in the last two kilometers to finish 89th.
“A lot of it’s just understanding what the effort is, and the field that we were in with the caliber of competition and the quality of the other teams that are in there,” Sullivan said, “The tendency can be to run too hard too early, and our guys did a very good job managing their efforts early in the race and that allowed them to move through the field.
“So we’re in 25th place 2k in the race but move all the way to 13th by the end, it means we’re doing good job of running within ourselves early so that we can make good hard pushes over the last half of the race.”
For this team, the six spots of improvement is just the beginning of what will be a long season of success, and it all starts with teamwork. According to Lee, exceeding expectations will be par for the course for Michigan because of its camaraderie.
“I’d say that all around we have a great culture,” Lee said. “I’d say that we’re young, but we’re fighters, we’re grinders, we’re ready to put in the work, ready to do what needs to be done. I think people can overlook us in the Big Ten just because we are so young and because we lost a lot of great talent, but if they did that, that would be a big mistake on their part.”