Men's cross country starts season with tune-up at Michigan Open

By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published August 29, 2014

DEXTER, Mich. — First-year Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan made it clear to his runners before Friday’s Michigan Open that he didn’t want them to push the pace.

For the 22nd-ranked Wolverines men’s cross country team, the sole home event of the season represented little more than a tuneup and a convenient setting to get used to pre-race jitters.

But sometimes, boys will be boys.

In the final meters of the non-scoring, intrasquad 5K, junior standout Tony Smoragiewicz was clear of the pack and being cheered toward the finish line, but fellow junior Mason Ferlic was closing fast. Smoragiewicz, not to be surpassed, used his best box-out maneuver to keep Ferlic at bay to barely pull off the win.

Smoragiewicz, who competed as an unattached runner, finished in 15:19.8, just eight-tenths of a second ahead of his teammate.

Ferlic, a first-team All-American in 2013, couldn’t contain a smile when he talked about getting edged out of first place.

“(Smoragiewicz) wanted to win there at the end,” Ferlic said, “but it was all in good sport. We were trying to tell each other, ‘Don’t race at the very end.’ It was supposed to be a workout. Obviously, though, it’s just fun to be competitive.”

The rest of the meet was somewhat uneventful as the team stuck to Sullivan’s advice, chugging toward the finish line in a large pack for much of the race.

The upcoming season, though, should provide plenty of fireworks. The drama started in the spring when, after second- and third-place finishes in the Big Ten the past two seasons, former coach Alex Gibby was released.

The decision reflected the Wolverines’ poor performance in distance track and field events, but it still seemed to take some runners aback.

“It was a tough change for me before I got to know (Sullivan),” said redshirt junior August Pappas. “I was pretty close with my old coach, so it wasn’t easy. But I’ve been really impressed with how smoothly everything has gone, how calm and composed coach Sullivan has been with the change. He’s impressed, I think, all of us with his level of professionalism and focus. It feels like we’re clicking on all cylinders right now.”

Added Ferlic: “It’s been a smooth transition. Obviously, a lot of the guys really liked coach Gibby, and it was a little rough at the beginning, but coach Sullivan has been great. He really took the time to learn us as a team.”

Sullivan, a former standout distance runner for Michigan, now has the challenge of equaling past success in cross country while delivering better results in the spring season. That task comes with the additional hurdles of coaching a team with little championship experience and only one senior.

Friday, the Wolverines did see a promising performance from redshirt freshman Austin Baumgarten, who finished the race in fourth with a time of 15:24, but the competition for roster spots is still thick and the clock is ticking.

“I didn’t want (the Michigan Open) to turn into a race where guys were racing for spots nine through 12,” Sullivan said. “We’re going let the next few weeks play out and determine who are our fittest guys.”

And Sullivan returned to solving that puzzle immediately following the finish, lining the team up for post-race sprints.