YPSILANTI — Two-time cross country All-American. Six time track All-American. Two-time 800-meter NCAA indoor track champion. Five-time Big Ten champion. Numerous school and NCAA records.
In his four years at Michigan, senior cross country runner Nate Brannen had seemingly done it all. Yet there was one thing that eluded Brannen in his years and 21 cross country races at Michigan — actually winning a cross country race.
Brannen finally put that behind him Saturday when he won the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Championship, which was held at Eagle Crest Golf Resort in Ypsilanti. Brannen’s first-place finish led the 23rd-ranked Wolverines to a fourth-place finish overall.
“It feels good to win,” Brannen said. “It’s especially nice to do it in my final regional ever.”
Brannen started the race in a large pack behind the four leaders. With less than one-fifth of the race left, Brannen began to emerge along with Notre Dame’s Kurt Benniger. The two put themselves about 100 meters off the leaders — Sean Jefferson of Indiana and Brian Olinger of Ohio State. In the last kilometer, Brannen and Benniger turned it up a notch and overtook the Jefferson and Olinger with less than a kilometer of the race to go.
“Basically with 1K to go, I knew I had it,” Brannen said. “I was pretty confident going into the backstretch.”
Brannen’s confidence paid off, as he used his signature kick — so crucial to him in the 800-meter race — coming off the last turn, to pull away from his competition and win the race by a margin of three seconds.
Even though he took first, the most important thing to Brannen was that his team did well.
“It’s nice to win,” Brannen said. “But much more so to make nationals as a team.”
Although just the two top teams from each region automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute next Monday, the Wolverines’ performance this season has earned them an at-large bid.
Michigan’s solid finish was a great turn of events. After a disappointing fifth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships last week, the team rebounded back and finished second out of five Big Ten teams at this championship, behind only Wisconsin.
“(The Big Ten Championship) is behind us now,” Michigan coach Ron Warhurst said. “We made nationals and that’s always our goal.”
Warhurst was pleased with how his entire team ran in the race. He noted that Michigan scored 111 points in a race with 29 teams at this meet, whereas a week earlier the Wolverines scored 125 points against just 10 teams.
“We ran our best race of the year,” Warhurst said. “From top to bottom, the whole team ran well.”
All five scoring Wolverines placed in the top-35. The second Michigan runner to cross the finish line was freshman Mike Woods, whose 16th-place finish placed him — along with Brannen — on the Great Lakes All-Regional team.
“I’m ecstatic,” Woods said. “We put it together and really stepped it up. I’m really proud of the team.”
Now the team will be readying itself for the NCAA championships. Despite the up-and-down season Michigan has had so far, Warhurst is confident that his team can perform well in Terre Haute.
“No more flops for us, we have just one more race,” Warhurst said. “I would like to see Brannen make the top-10. As for everybody else, we’ll throw the cards out there and see how they fall. Top-15 finish for the team I hope.”