Although the NCAA Cross Country Championships are still months away, the Michigan men’s cross country team experienced an abrupt preview of the national field at the Virginia Invitational on Saturday.
With high caliber teams like Northern Arizona, BYU and North Carolina leading on the team scoreboard, the Wolverines struggled to find their place. Michigan’s 14th place team finish put them behind the mark it wanted to land at.
“Our target was top ten,” Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan said. “I think that would have been a really positive result, and we would have gone home happy maybe 12th (as a team) or higher. We’re just a little bit outside of where our expectations are.”
The Wolverines were led by two standout performances from graduate students Tom Brady and Nick Foster. Brady was Michigan’s top finisher, placing 28th overall with a time of 23:45.4 and was followed closely by Foster at 32nd with a time of 23:49.2. The two standout performances provided benchmarks for national competition and a preview of the national championship course for the two athletes.
“It’s pretty awesome to have a really deep field like this early in the season,” Brady said. “It was a really good national preview. This will be the national (championship) course and it was probably half the field that will run at nationals.”
This showcase of national talent was something that Brady, Foster and Michigan’s next finisher, sophomore Luke Venhuizen, faced in previous years. All three competed in the NCAA Cross Country Championships last fall, and this race created a stepping stone on their journey to this year’s championship.
While Venhuizen finished third for the Wolverines, he finished 81st overall coming in at a time of 24:15.9. The next placers came in together at 102nd and 103rd — sophomore Caleb Jarema and junior Michael Hancock, respectively — earning the same time of 24:27.9. Working together throughout the race, they rounded out Michigan’s top five finishers.
The spread between the Wolverines’ results did not aid the team score however. Finishing 14th out of the 23 teams competing was not where it wanted to land, even while dealing with injury and sickness.
“We’re missing a couple of pieces,” Sullivan said. “We have a couple of guys that are coming back from injury and we’ve had some sickness go through the team. We were happy we had at least three or four of our potential top nine guys.”
The Wolverines are looking forward to the resolution of such uncontrollable variables, but for those who can still practice healthily, the training continues for the next competition.
With an underwhelming team performance, the race mindset is also still in the works for Brady, who has goals for the upcoming meet that don’t only deal with physical training.
“When I have to commit to a move late in the race,” Brady said, “I just want to be committing to it and feeling like I’m finishing the race in a competitive spot, and coming away from the race satisfied.”
As Michigan’s top finisher at the Virginia Invitational, Brady’s success in instilling such confidence into his race strategy could trickle down into the competitive confidence of his fellow Wolverines — especially with the depth potential of this year’s team.
With what Michigan hopes will be a full squad, the team will travel to the Nuttycombe Invitational in Wisconsin in less than three weeks. As another highly competitive race, the Nuttycombe will provide the Wolverines with yet another preview of the potential national field.
Until then, Michigan plans on taking the lessons it learned as a team from the Virginia Invitational and using them to prepare for the beginning of championship season. There, the Wolverines will look to improve by closing the gaps between its first five runners.