Mason Ferlic was in Ann Arbor. Ben Flanagan was in Canada. And James Yau was in Taiwan.
So of Michigan’s three current cross country captains, only one was even in the United States when the program announced in June that head coach Alex Gibby wouldn’t be returning.
But they were named captains by their team last week for a reason. Gibby may have been gone, but the now-captains weren’t about to let his old program falter.
Ferlic — who also traveled to Sacramento, California and Kamloops, British Columbia for postseason track and field competitions in the summer — sent an email to the whole team. He reminded the Wolverines that none of their expectations for the summer and the following season had changed.
“I guess (I) maybe just reassured the guys,” Ferlic said. “Everyone runs to panic scenarios about who the new coach is going to be and how everything’s going to change. Once you get over the jitters that we’re moving forward as a program, everyone got back into training.”
What Ferlic said worked. When the team got word of Gibby’s departure, Flanagan drove back to Ann Arbor from Kitchener, Ontario to be with the team for a while. Assistant coach Dusty Lopez helped keep the team’s training plan in place. Michigan stuck to its goals over the summer, putting itself in position for a top-25 ranking in the preseason poll. Former Michigan runner Kevin Sullivan replaced Gibby and kept the program’s basic philosophy largely in place.
“I think it went very well in terms of our mindset coming into it, just accepting what happened and knowing that we’ve got to do whatever it takes to push this program forward,” Yau said. “The Athletic Department made the decision that they thought was best for us, and going with the flow helped us move into a really smooth transition.”
Then, days before his team won the Big Ten Preview in Iowa City, Iowa over the weekend, Sullivan announced that the team had elected Ferlic, Flanagan and Yau as captains for the season. Together, the trio helped ease any worries about the coaching transition.
“The fear would be that with the new coaching transition, people feel like there’s no authority figure left in place,” Ferlic said. “Nothing is changing in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish as a team.”
Yau, a fifth-year senior from Troy, Michigan, is the oldest member of the current squad. Flanagan, just a sophomore, was a second-team All-Big Ten honoree last season. And Ferlic, a redshirt junior from St. Paul, Minnesota, is another experienced runner with a strong track background.
The captains said the rest of the team is a motivated group on its own, though.
“I would like to ideally think that I would act the same regardless, but now that there’s a captain behind it, people look up to you more,” Flanagan said. “The main thing is leading by example.”
That leading started with the unexpected news in June. Each captain had only ever run for Gibby, who took the program from eighth in the Big Ten, to tied for third, to second, to second again in four seasons.
“When I came in four years ago, the team was kind of disoriented, and it took four years for Gibby to build us up to where we are now,” Yau said. “Having that solid foundation that was built before Sullivan came here definitely helped the transition and allows us to take the next step forward.”
Though Gibby’s cross country program was on the rise, the Wolverines didn’t earn enough points in long-distance events in track to satisfy Clayton.
So the cross country team’s concern over the summer was valid, but as it turned out, Sullivan didn’t reshape very much at all.
“To give credit to Gibby, he didn’t leave the program in shambles,” Ferlic said. “We had talent developing, and we already had talent there. We had the makings of a good program, so when (Sullivan) stepped in, he didn’t really have to reorder everything.
“When he saw the program and observed it and got to know us, he realized things were there and he didn’t have to overhaul anything. He could make the tweaks he wanted to. He was left with a good basket of eggs.”