The Michigan men’s cross country team began its competitive racing season with a victory at the adidas XC Challenge in Cary, N.C. this past Friday. 

The Wolverines received a team score of 22, beating second-place North Carolina State and third-place Wake Forest, which finished with 36 points and 126 points, respectively. With 13 teams competing in the event, the Challenge gave Michigan its first proper race of the season, having held the Michigan Open two weeks ago. While the Open provided the team with a good opportunity to practice, it was not scored, and as such did not have the same competitive feel as a real race.

Carrying the Wolverines to victory were fifth-year seniors Ben Flanagan and Billy Bund, who finished first and third in the individual category with times of 18:12.1 and 18:14.1, respectively.

Flanagan, a two-time Academic All-Big Ten, missed most of last season due to injuries, making this weekend’s event his first healthy race in over a year. Having finished ninth in 2015 NCAA Championships in the 10,000-meter category, expectations for Flanagan are high this season, with Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan being especially pleased with his performance on Friday.

Sullivan stressed that races like Friday’s are strong confidence builders, and that the coaching staff was looking forward to seeing Flanagan continue to improve over the course of the season.

With three of the team’s top-nine runners at home to train, many younger athletes were given the opportunity to compete.

Notable performances came from redshirt freshman Isaac Harding, sophomores Ben Hill and Keenan Rebera and freshman Jacob Lee who finished 6-8-10-12 in the Challenge. 

“We’ve seen a big jump in performance from a lot of these guys,” Sullivan said. “They put in a lot of hard work (last year), which sometimes goes unnoticed, so it was nice to see them reaping the rewards of that hard work.”

The XC Challenge was a good start and a solid first step in the Wolverines’ six weeks of preparation ahead of the Big Ten Championships, which it last won two years ago. A fifth-place finish in the conference last year marked a break from five straight seasons of top-three finishes in the Big Ten, as well as five straight appearances in the NCAA Championships. Hopes are high that this season can provide a return to success.

“Our championship comes down to one day in October,” Sullivan said. “We don’t have a regular season championship, we don’t accumulate wins and losses, it all comes down to the last Sunday in October.”

The upcoming races provide these aforementioned athletes — as well as other young talents such as redshirt freshman Andrew Lorant and redshirt sophomore Jordy Hewitt — the opportunity to develop and prepare for championships later in the year.

Sullivan stressed that being able to compete despite being tired from previous races was especially important to the team’s success.

“You may not feel your best, you may not feel your sharpest,” Sullivan said. “But you got to learn how to compete in those situations as well.”

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