This is the position in which the Michigan cross country teams have put themselves. It was Thursday, the day before the Great Lakes Regional meet that decides qualifiers for the NCAA Championships, and the Wolverines were talking about the regional meet as a warmup.
“It’s just sort of an expectation at this point that we qualify for the national meet,” said Gina Sereno, a redshirt sophomore on the women’s team.
That’s what happens when you qualify for the NCAA Championships 13 straight times, six by winning the regional title, as the Michigan women have. In any sport, at any level, athletes refuse to look past any competition to the next. For the Wolverines, qualifying is a given. It’s the big picture they’re after now, the big picture they train the whole year for.
That big picture finishes Saturday at the NCAA Championships. And for the first time in recent memory, both teams are among the top contenders — the men are ranked No. 5 in the latest poll, the women No. 7.
So much of the focus is on that event that the Michigan women contemplated holding back a bit in the regional meet to conserve energy for this weekend. This is their biggest day of the year, and that’s the end of it. There’s no bowl game, no long postseason tournament, no national-television exposure. It’s intrinsically motivated: They compete to finish the best they can, with no wide-ranging implications beyond that.
Both Michigan teams will be right in the middle of things on race day, but a closer look reveals the different spots in which they find themselves.
The women have established themselves more in recent seasons. The Wolverines finished fifth at the NCAA Championships in 2012 and fourth in 2013, garnering a No. 1 preseason ranking to start 2014.
But when you train the whole year for one event, everything has to fall into place for that event to work out. Last year, it didn’t. Two of Michigan’s top runners, Erin Finn and Shannon Osika, were injured late in the season. Neither ran in the NCAA Championships, and the team finished 18th.
Still, the powerhouse coach Mike McGuire has built doesn’t crumble with a couple of injuries. Finn, now a junior, and Osika, a senior, returned and stayed healthy. After the misfortune of last year, McGuire knows that’s no small feat.
“I think the biggest difference between last year and this year is we’re a team that physically is intact,” he said.
Other than that, the team is similar, with Finn, Osika and three finishers from the NCAA Championships in 2014 leading the way. But last year’s ending wasn’t the Wolverines’ last setback.
On Nov. 1, Michigan traveled to the Big Ten Championships as a heavy favorite. But for the third straight year, the Wolverines failed to win.
Fortunately for them, they still had more competitions left — including the one that matters most.
“We’re just looking for a shot at redemption, really,” Sereno said. “We didn’t do as well at the Big Ten meet as we were expected to do, and I think everyone is looking for an opportunity to show what we’re really made of.”
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In some ways, the men’s team’s path has been opposite the women’s. The men had missed four of 10 NCAA Championships heading into this season. For them, rather than a disappointment, 2014 was a building block. Under first-year coach Kevin Sullivan, they jumped to 11th in the national meet — their highest finish since 2003 — and used that as a springboard to this year.
Two weeks ago, while the women’s team let a Big Ten championship slip away, the men’s team got that monkey off its back. After three straight second-place finishes, Michigan took home the title this year, its first since 1998.
“The taste of almost being it and having the disappointment, those are tough bus rides back from the previous Big Ten Championships,” said fifth-year senior co-captain Mason Ferlic.
The year before Ferlic arrived at Michigan, the Wolverines took eighth at the Big Ten Championships. Since then, they finished in the top three in four straight years — but could never win.
“You’re kind of searching for the what-if,” Ferlic said.
So Michigan kept building, and this year there was no going back. In each of the previous four seasons, the Wolverines were in contention, but everything had to go right and everyone had to run perfectly for them to win.
This year, they were the clear favorite. Led by Ferlic — who has now been the top Michigan finisher in his last 17 races — they took home the trophy.
The Wolverines have rolled forward — more quickly, Sullivan admitted, than he expected when he took the job — to put themselves in this position so soon. No one on the current roster has been on a team that missed the NCAA Championships, but never have the Wolverines had a legitimate shot of reaching the podium as they do this season.
“We have the guys,” Ferlic said. “The team is solidified. We’ve put in all our hard work. This is the fun part. It’s where we get to prove it and race.
“We’re not coming into the postseason here feeling like we missed something mid-season. We’re coming in feeling like we did everything that needed to be done. And now it’s just time to prove it.”
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The women have been in position for years but have struggled to put it all together lately. The men have been behind and haven’t put it all together until lately. This weekend, they will take the same bus to Louisville for a race in which they both have a chance.
As with any team, their fortunes have fluctuated over the years. This season, both are healthy, both are confident and both are talented. Both feel like things might finally be lining up for them.
“At this point, yes,” McGuire said. “Things can change. It’s a fickle sport. You have to be good, and you have to be lucky. We feel that we’re pretty good, and if the good fortunes stay with us, I like where this season can finish up.”
The preparations are almost over, and the anticipated day is almost here. Maybe things will bounce Michigan’s way Saturday. Maybe they won’t. All the Wolverines can do is put themselves in a position for it to come down to that.
“If you don’t feel prepared at this point, you won’t ever be prepared,” Ferlic said. “The work’s been done. The hay’s in the barn, you could say.”
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JakeLourim.