Forget the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. The best pumpkin créme brulee, pumpkin pie and other delicious fall pumpkin treats aren’t at Trader Joe’s — they’re found at the Michigan men’s and women’s cross country teams’ October bake-off. 

Every month, all of Michigan’s distance runners get together to compete in another arena by testing their skills in the kitchen. The night usually ends with everyone laying on the floor — completely stuffed — taking a vote on who should win. 

And if you haven’t guessed, this month the theme is pumpkin.

“The competition is intense,” said the captain for the women’s squad, Devon Hoppe. “Everyone brings another level of competition to the bake-off. Once I tried to participate, but it was just mediocre. Now I just eat.”

Despite how close the teams are today, the fifth-year senior has seen a change in the two teams’ relationship since she became a Wolverine. She attributes this to the addition of Kevin Sullivan as head coach of the men’s team.

Sullivan is now in his second season with the Wolverines. He is a Michigan alum and is the most decorated runner in the school’s history. In his first season as head coach, he guided his team to its highest finish at the NCAA Championships in more than a decade. 

Perhaps Sullivan’s secret to success and his ability to unify the two teams is because he trained under the same coach as women’s coach Mike McGuire, who has directed the program for 24 years. Both trained under the legendary Ron Warhurst. 

“There are certain similarities between how (McGuire and I) coach,” Sullivan said. “And there are things that are different. It’s (a) direct result of training under the same coach. It’s natural to take what you learned from your coach and move it to how you train your own athletes.

“(McGuire) and I have our offices right next to each other, so we pop into each other’s offices often to talk about training, team issues and strategy. We rely on each other for advice.”

Yet the two cross country teams are separate. They practice on different schedules, they often travel to different meets and they have different track records. But this season seems to be bringing the teams closer together.

“I feel like we have we have a great relationship,” Hoppe said. “We’re a big family, we love each other very much, and we all recognize that we all want to work hard. That’s the core of our relationship. We’re all striving to achieve the same goals. The men’s team is an extra support system.”  

Hoppe’s classmate, Nick Posada, agreed and emphasized how effective some of Sullivan’s policies have been. 

“The boys and girls used to go to separate training camps, but when Sullivan came we started going to the same camp,” Posada said. “This was a new step in the relationship. We played board games and we just introduced ourselves to each other. Now, every weekend we’ll get together with the other team. There’s this whole social life the women and men do together now that centers around running.

“Sullivan thought it would be best if we became one cohesive distance unit. He wanted to bring back the same atmosphere he had when he was at school here.”

An integral part of the melding of the teams is their introductions at camp. All the runners get paired up — 40 women to 26 men — and introduce the other to the group. This activity helps all the athletes get to know everybody’s name and small fun facts about each one of them. 

According to Posada, this is one of McGuire’s favorite team-building exercises. Otherwise, he maintains a serious demeanor while coaching. 

“Both programs have been traditionally strong programs, and McGuire is one of the best coaches,” Posada said. “We have strong coaches on both sides, which is pretty rare. We kind of look at (the women’s team) and ask how they get that consistency because they’re constantly a top-10 team. That’s what (the men) strive for.” 

So far, the the men’s and women’s cross country teams have been running far ahead of the competition this season. Coming off of last weekend’s domination at the Greater Louisville Classic, both fifth-year senior Mason Ferlic and junior Erin Finn were named Big-Ten Cross Country Athletes of the Week. Yet the men and women are still debating over who really is running “on time.” 

“The girls are overly punctual,” Ferlic said. “The guys are on time. According to them, if you’re not half an hour early, you’re late.”

“If you’re not three minutes early, you’re late,” Finn said. “But the boys are not that way. We spend a lot of time waiting for the boys.”

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