Before the Michigan men’s cross country team even left Minnesota this weekend, it was already planning on how to outperform itself at its next event, the Great Lakes Regionals.
At this meet, though, the Wolverines fell short of expectations. Hoping to win a second straight Big Ten title, Michigan instead fell to fifth place.
“The season’s not over yet — we’ve got more things that we can, and plan, on accomplishing,” said Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan. “Honestly, I didn’t have to say a whole lot (of positive encouragement to the team after the race). We had to recognize what happened. We had to come to the realization pretty quickly we have more opportunities to right the ship. We couldn’t, and can’t, wallow and feel the self-pity, because we have to get back to work.”
The team traveled to the Les Bolstand Golf Course in Minneapolis for the second time this year for the Big Ten Championships. The Wolverines navigated an 8,000-meter course against 11 other Big Ten programs. Prior to 2015, the last time Michigan won a conference championship was in 1998.
The 14th-ranked Wolverines, however, failed to achieve the title and instead finished with 123 points, a large margin behind first-place Wisconsin. Adding to an already rough defeat, only one Wolverine managed to finish in the top-10 athletes — redshirt junior Aaron Baumgarten who crossed the finish line at 24:49.0 for sixth place, only one second from breaking into the top-5 runners.
“(Baumgarten) is a great example of what hard work and fierce determination to be an elite athlete can really do,” Sullivan said. “He goes into these races with a chip on his shoulder because he wasn’t a highly recruited athlete coming out of high school.
“For a lot of his early part of his career he’s looked at himself as an underdog. So he’s always wanted to prove people wrong, and he has. But he carries that feeling with him in every race situation.”
Baumgarten’s race strategy, much like the team’s, according to Sullivan, was to go on the defensive rather than the offensive. But opponents managed to start out strong and stay there, and Michigan was unable to work its way through the masses of runners like it typically does.
“Something that we’ve prided on and learned is that we do really well with moving up through the field and beating guys in the latter half of the race,” Baumgarten said. “One thing we saw in this race in the results is that our places were stagnant and that we didn’t do what we usually have. We were sitting in the same spot instead of moving up through that.”
Many factors could have played into the Wolverines’ less-than-stellar performance. Sullivan mentioned that the Big Ten Championships were always a toss-up between Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It just so happened that this weekend the Wolverines wound up on the bottom of the pile.
Michigan also boasted a relatively inexperienced roster for the event. The lineup that Sullivan brought to the race consisted of nine athletes with only Baumgarten, redshirt junior Micah Beller and senior Connor Mora previously competing for the Big Ten title. The other six runners were redshirt freshman Jordy Hewitt, redshirt sophomore Kyle Kroon, redshirt juniors Austin Benoit, Billy Bund and graduate students Connor Herr and Ned Willig.
Other top-25 performances included Mora in 19th (25:10.6) and Bund in 22nd (25.14.5).
Despite everything, including the initial negative morale, the team is planning on overcoming its fall from graces.
“Our team wasn’t pleased, but it’s not indicative of the talent on our team,” Baumgarten said. “I think this team is going to have an exceptional end to the season. We’re going to turn some heads and come back with some fire in our stomachs at the nationals course.
“Don’t count us out.”