John Tatter was supposed to run his first collegiate cross-country race close to home.
The Winston-Salem, N.C. native — along with the rest of the Michigan men’s cross country team — was originally slated to compete in a meet hosted by North Carolina State. It would have been the perfect start to a career, the chance to show off his stuff to family and friends while getting acclimated to the world of college cross country.
But sometimes, things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to, and for Tatter and the rest of the team, there was a change of plans.
Because of Hurricane Florence, Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan decided he didn’t want to risk the safety of his team by traveling to North Carolina. Soon after that, the meet was cancelled and the Wolverines were forced to find a contingency plan. So instead of competing at North Carolina State, Michigan sent its young runners to the Auto Owners’ Spartan Invitational, featuring No. 24 Michigan State and several local teams — many of which compete in Division II or the NAIA — while its regular top four stayed home to train.
The Wolverines placed second as a team — behind the Spartans — with a total of 58 points. Tatter placed sixth with a time of 25:21.4 and finished as Michigan’s top-ranked individual. It seemed like an uninspiring performance for a team that last year won the Big Ten Championships. But in some meets, the total focus is on winning while others are more for development, and this was one of the latter.
“We decided that we would leave our top four runners at home to train (because) they’d get better benefit from training through this week than racing here at Michigan State,” Sullivan said. “ … A lot of it was about gaining experience. For a lot of these guys, it was their first time running 8K and it’s a little bit different from what they deal with in high school.”
Still, Tatter’s performance flashed potential. Used to running the 5000-meter race, Tatter held his own at the longer distance and made his case for cracking the Wolverines’ lineup later in the season.
Redshirt sophomore Joost Plaetnick also impressed, finishing ninth with a time of 25:28.2.
“(He) had probably his best competition for us in uniform,” Sullivan said.
And despite the lack of top finishers, five Michigan runners placed in the top 20 — Tatter, Plaetnick, redshirt sophomore Jacob Branch, freshman Gabe Mudel and redshirt junior Kevin Hall.
With the Wolverines’ change in plans came a change in expectations. Michigan’s mindset shifted from that of the reigning Big Ten champions to a young team looking to get early-season experience. And in that light, while a second-place finish and the 29th-best score in the country leaves a lot of room for improvement, it also demonstrates the Wolverines’ future potential.
“We all need to make a little move forward,” Sullivan said. “But the guys that are here this year are making a nice move towards that. So we have depth, we’re really young, so there’s definitely a big foundation that we’re building for the future.”