The six fifth-year seniors on the Michigan men’s cross country team had careers defined by ups and downs. In their freshman and sophomore seasons, the Wolverines finished ninth and 11th in the nation.
But last year, Michigan failed to even qualify for a spot in the NCAA National Championship race.
Coming into this year, it wanted to regain some consistency.
Thanks in large part to those fifth-year seniors, the Wolverines returned to churning out strong, consistent performances, culminating in a 10th-place finish at the NCAA Championships in Louisville.
Michigan ended the race with the best finish of any Big Ten team, scoring 328 points — 254 points behind national champion Northern Arizona. Fifth-year senior Ben Flanagan led the Wolverines by finishing 20th overall, ending an excellent senior season in which he was named the Great Lakes Region Athlete of the Year by becoming Michigan’s first All-American since 2014.
“He’s got a fierce desire to win,” said Michigan coach Mike Sullivan. “And he’s a guy who’s not really satisfied with anything less than being on the podium.”
Fellow fifth-year senior Connor Mora also turned in an excellent final performance, finishing 48th — just eight spots out of All-American qualification. In the final two kilometers, he maneuvered past seven runners. He was one of several Wolverines to move up the field toward the end of the race, as both redshirt senior Aaron Baumgarten methodically brushed past 61 runners and freshman Jack Aho moved up 15 spots over the last four kilometers.
“For us, it was just about being cautiously aggressive at the beginning and then trying to find a good spot to work up from through the race,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t plan much besides to get out hard, and try to race from 5k onwards.”
Michigan’s strong performance in their final race of the season can partially be attributed to the excellent leadership of its six redshirt seniors.
“I think (senior leadership) was really important in a situation like today for a couple reasons,” Sullivan said. “We were relying on some freshmen and sophomores that have never been at this stage before and those guys had the experience to kind of walk them through it, walk them through the emotions leading up to the race. That type of leadership is gonna help us as the seniors graduate and our younger guys take over the leadership roles.”
With the massive senior class graduating, the burden of leadership will likely rest on Jack Aho and redshirt freshman Isaac Harding, who rounded out the Wolverines scoring five with a finish of 132nd at nationals.
After failing to qualify for nationals last year, Michigan’s strong top-10 finish was certainly a satisfying end for its fifth-year seniors, who were able to close out their careers on an upswing.