It was a good weekend for the Michigan men’s cross country team.
After a lackluster season in 2016, where the Wolverines finished fifth out of 12 teams in the Big Ten Championships, the Wolverines wanted nothing more than a little redemption.
This year, the 13th-ranked Wolverines were favored to win the Big Ten Championships by the smallest of margins, and they defended that position by topping runner-up Michigan State by 11 points. Michigan led the 12-team bracket with 71 points to take home the championship, headlined by an elated group of five fifth-year seniors along with a rotation of younger athletes.
For Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan, it was a little more along the lines of relief.
“We were aggressive early, which we hadn’t been all year,” Sullivan said. “We wanted to run up near the front, so early on we were aggressive. But really the last half mile of the race we were bleeding a little bit and Michigan State was coming up hard, and we gave those guys — between (redshirt sophomores) Ben Hill and Keenan Rebera and (freshman) Jack Aho — a half mile to go and said, ‘You guys need to catch Michigan State’s fifth,’ and they all rallied from behind to either outkick him or come between a tenth of a second, and that’s kind of the untold story you don’t see from the stats.”
Fifth-year seniors Ben Flanagan, Aaron Baumgarten, Connor Mora, Billy Bund and Micah Beller all remained consistent throughout the race, finishing in the top-25. In a championship meet, that depth gave the Wolverines the advantage.
Only the first five runners from each team contribute to the team’s official score, while the remaining two runners are meant to displace runners from other teams. Michigan consolidated most of its runners in the top-25, giving it an edge over other teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin, which had higher individual placers but less consistency in packs.
“We had good leadership up front from Flanagan and Baumgarten, Mora, those really helped us,” Sullivan said. “But what really set us apart from the rest of the conference was that we were so consistent at four, five, six — that depth where we had interchangeable parts really helped us out today. Because, you know, we had a couple guys who had off days, and we had a couple guys who could step up and fill that gap, and you need that to have a successful meet.”
One of those consistent runners is Flanagan, who was the Wolverines’ top individual finisher at sixth place, and was a leader throughout the race. But his biggest contribution to the team may come off the course.
“Ben’s just a fantastic leader on our team, and he has been since I came in his sophomore year,” Sullivan said. “He was a team captain his sophomore year on the team, and I think that pretty much tells you all you need to know about Ben.
“The way the rest of the team looks at him, he’s the kind of guy who really grabs his team by the scruff after a year like last year and said, ‘Hey, we’re not satisfied with being in the middle of the conference, we want to be a team that’s always competing to win. Whether we win or not, we want to be putting ourselves in a position to try and win.’”
Riding an emotional win such as this one, Flanagan will have to help Michigan buckle down moving forward to prepare for the Great Lakes Regional, where it’ll see top-three finishers in Michigan State and Wisconsin. Good performances in the meet will punch the Wolverines’ ticket to the NCAA Championships, which could transform a good weekend into a great season finale.