Senior year is typically full of lasts. The last time you’ll pull an all-nighter to study. The last time you’ll take a walk in the Nichols Arboretum. The last time you’ll attend a lecture at Rackham Auditorium.
But for some members of the Michigan men’s cross country team, senior year brought a first.
It was the first time the Wolverines were able to call themselves Big Ten champions.
“A lot of the runners are seniors and fifth-year seniors, and they’ve never gotten to the top of the podium,” said Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan. “It’s been such a long time since (this program) won. This team wanted to win and wanted to leave their mark, and that’s what they did.”
The last time the fifth-ranked Wolverines ran their way to first place was in 1998 — Sullivan’s final year as a Michigan track athlete. Previously, Sullivan won the individual title at the Big Ten Championship for three consecutive years from 1993 to 1995 and again in 1997.
After this season, fifth-year seniors Mason Ferlic, August Pappas and Nick Posada will no longer be NCAA eligible. Seniors Alex Moran and Tony Smoragiewiecz will also be leaving the team, although Smoragiewiez will have one more year of track and field eligibility.
The most notable absence on the team will be that of Ferlic's, who became a prominent force for Michigan after he redshirted his sophomore season due to an injury. He has led the Wolverines for 17 consecutive races and seven postseason meets. He’s been named a two-time All-American and has been awarded Big Ten Athlete of the Week six times. Not surprisingly, Ferlic has also captained the men’s cross country team for three years.
Despite his achievements, Ferlic still harbors some dissapointment that he didn’t meet his personal goal of an individual title. He fell seven seconds short of frontrunner Matt McClintock from Purdue.
“I’m sad this is my last championship season,” Ferlic said. “I’ve dreamed about winning a conference title for my team since I was a freshman. Even though I didn’t win an individual title, as a team we finally won. We wanted nothing more than to end as Big Ten champions. I think all the seniors are satisfied. We can close that chapter of our running careers.”
Added Smoragiewiecz: “We went into this race with a different mindset today. We went in knowing we could win. It was ours to win. We could do it. It was this confidence that allowed us to be champions.”
Winning the 2015 Big Ten title ended the longest drought without a conference title since cross country regained varsity status in 1972.
A lot of what the runners chalk their confidence up to is experience and knowing that a pre-determined race plan will never work. Both Ferlic and junior Ben Flanagan, co-captains, preach flexibility to their team.
“I don’t think there’s been much of a difference in my mindset about running from year to year,” Ferlic said. “You obviously always get stronger, faster and more mature in your race tactics, but I’ve stayed consistent in how I approach these races. I come in with this confidence that I know I’m coming in with the miles and experience to do well.”
This level of dedication has extended beyond the seniors to the underclassmen, who are waiting to become the new senior class.
“We’re thankful the seniors got this experience,” Flanagan said. “Us younger guys are excited to send them out on this note. Everybody knew what it was going to take. Everybody focused on our individual goals. And then we filled our individual roles. Next year we’ll have new roles.”
And together, they filled the role of champions.