Courtesy of the University of Michigan Athletic Department

Heading into the Great Lakes Invitational, neither of Michigan’s cross country teams were guaranteed a spot in next weekend’s championship field. With their seasons on the line, they both showed up — big time.

Senior Ericka VanderLende led the charge for the women’s team, clocking a team-leading 6k time of 20:17.6 and placing 13th overall. She finished first among the team in 3-of-5 appearances this season, including a third place overall finish at the Big Ten Conference Championships.

“Terre Haute is very familiar to us in the Midwest, and I think almost all of us had raced here before so it was pretty familiar,” VanderLende said. “I feel like that definitely helped us stay confident that we can handle this well.”

Senior Sam Tran and fifth year Samantha Saenz weren’t far behind, with times of 20:34.2 and 20:43.9, respectively. Fifth-year Kayla Windemuller and graduate student Danielle Page followed up with respectable times as well. These strong performances helped the Wolverines to a third place finish, locking up a bid to compete at the NCAA Championship race in Stillwater, Oklahoma. 

“We knew Notre Dame was in a league of their own,” Michigan coach Mike McGuire said. “I thought we were better than we were in the Big Ten (Championships), but Ohio State was obviously even better to get the second auto spot. But you know, it’s a strong region, and I thought we showed up today for sure.”

For McGuire, who has coached the Wolverines since 1992, this marks his 29th time coaching a team to an NCAA Championship. He better than anyone understands how to keep a team operating at their peak multiple weeks in a row, especially when the stakes are so high.

“It’s just a matter of coming off of this, and knowing that we’re running on the biggest stage and being focused on the challenge at hand,” McGuire said. “We’re excited about it. I mean, you get to that point, it’s a reward for a lot of preparation. But at the same time, there’s still work to be done on Saturday.”

The men’s team similarly needed a big performance to reach nationals. They rallied behind seniors Tom Brady and Arjun Jha, whose nearly identical 10k times earned them third and fourth-place finishes, respectively. Top-25 finishes from senior Nick Foster and junior Zach Stewart, followed by a 32nd-place finish from junior Oli Raimond would prove enough to secure an at-large bid.

“We got out pretty fast but then we really settled in,” Brady said. “We knew Butler was a team we were competing with and we had to match them, man for man. So we went with that move and it was pretty aggressive. But we held on for the most part.”

Brady and Jha have been vital to Michigan all season, combining for five team-leading performances through seven competitions. 

“(Tom and Arjun) made a commitment early in the race to cover a pretty hard move by the two Butler guys … it takes some pretty strong-willed guys to be able to go and put yourself out in the position that they put themselves in,” Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan said. “They’ve delivered for us every single meet this year and we expect that they’ll be doing the same next week at the national championships.”

Both teams will travel to Stillwater next weekend to vie for a national title. Needing a big performance this week, the Wolverines responded to the pressure and rose to the occasion. But the question remains: can they repeat this performance on college cross country’s biggest stage?

“Our team has goals they set out for themselves this year on what they want to accomplish at the National Championships,” Sullivan said. “You can’t rest on the laurels at this point … they’ve got to be able to regroup, stay focused this weekend and not just be satisfied with being at national championships. The job’s not done.”