Play for the name on the front of your jersey, not the name on the back.

It’s an age-old adage which exhorts participants of team sports to prioritize the greater good instead of personal gain.

Though the Michigan women’s cross country team’s jerseys are not customized to include individual surnames, the sentiment amply applies. With a score of 79 points, the 11th-ranked Wolverines a leaderless team which thrives on cooperation — punched their 18th consecutive ticket to Saturday’s NCAA Championships with a second place finish at the Great Lakes Regional last Friday. In doing so, Michigan — as well top finisher No. 6 Michigan State — ushered in the offseason for the majority of a field composed of Big Ten and mid-major foes. 

The result at the Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course in Madison proved the value in using collaboration as the foundation for a successful team on and off the course. 

The Wolverines utilized two strategic realities to accomplish a national championship berth. One revolved around the team’s final six runners, a group that was trained to find each other and run together as much as possible, according to Michigan coach Mike McGuire.

“(Running together is) definitely something we prioritize, something we followed through on today,” McGuire said. “You can work your way out of a tough spot a lot of times when you know you’ve got your teammate right there with you. … (That’s) much more of a degree of accountability to each other.”

Forming groups as small as two and as large as four, six of seven Wolverine runners experienced this teamwork at some point during the race. The benefits of this accountability were on full display; no runner ever dipped below 40th in the field, and all maintained consistent splits over the six-kilometer course. McGuire noted the added challenge of sticking together during the final kilometer, one which wasn’t present on most of the team’s competitions this year.

“(We made) sure we’re staying grouped up in that extra three, three-and-a-half minutes,” McGuire said.

The other strategic reality present was left to the legs and cardiovascular strength of freshman Ericka Vanderlende, the lone Michigan contestant who did not benefit from running with teammates. Her objective was simple.

“I typically just like to go to the front, see how long I can hang on,” Vanderlende said. “… Today I just tried not to push the pace and let other people do the work.” 

Last Friday, the freshman was able to hang on for the duration of the race, winding up with a fourth-place finish. And while Vanderlende wasn’t shy about acknowledging her status as the team’s premier runner, she dispelled any assumptions that this fact alone made her a leader.

“It’s the same as any other place on the team,” she said. “Just trying to run our best race and get the least amount of points we can.” 

Despite Friday’s success, McGuire was less than outspoken about his team’s achievements and its goals for the season finale.

“You always want to at least what we call ‘Hold serve,’” McGuire said. “Go in and not race under your ranking, and race at your ranking or higher…we hope to do that again next Saturday.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *