So what’s next for Michigan’s vaunted distance program now that its two stars have departed for the professional ranks?

While the contributions of Nate Brannen and Nick Willis are not completely replaceable by any means, the team might not be in as bad of shape as many would think. With internationally respected coach Ron Warhurst — and his history of creating champions — leading the program, maintaining the Wolverines’ success is far from out of reach.

Leading the charge next season will be seniors Andrew Ellerton and Rondell Ruff, a pair of middle-distance runners that has improved immensely since arriving in Ann Arbor. After being hobbled by injuries for most of this past year, Ellerton earned All-America honors at the NCAA Outdoor Championships with his fifth-place finish. Just last summer, Ellerton was one place away from joining Willis in Athens after finishing third in the Canadian Olympic Trials. Brannen finished fourth.

While Ruff hasn’t earned the international attention that Brannen, Willis and Ellerton have, he has quietly racked up wins for the Wolverines. Besides running with Ellerton on the Wolverines’ 2005 indoor national champion distance medley, he ran on Michigan’s championship 4×800-meter relay team at the Penn Relays, placed fifth in the 800-meter run at the Big Ten Championships and fifth in the NCAA Mid-East Regional’s 1,500-meter run. During this past outdoor season, Ruff managed to break the 1:50 second barrier in the 800-meter run, surpassing what has long proven an enormous mental barrier for track runners and making the sky the limit for Ruff in his final season at Michigan. While every one-thousandth of a second will be increasingly harder to get, Ruff will likely continue to improve as he has throughout his entire career in Maize and Blue.

Even more enticing than the proven commodities of Ellerton and Ruff are the prospects of sophomores Victor Gras and Michael Woods. When the pair arrived in Ann Arbor, many people compared it to the arrival of Brannen and professional miler Alan Webb, because like Brannen and Webb before them, Gras and Woods are both knocking on the door of the four-minute mile barrier.

Even though he is entering just his sophomore year, Woods has plenty of big meet experience. Woods participated in the 1,500-meter run at this year’s NCAA Outdoor Championships and place ninth in the 3,000-meter run at the 2003 World Youth Championships. Gras also has a history of stepping up at big meets, as he ran the nation’s top high school 1,500-meter time during his senior year and placed second at the 2004 Adidas national high school championship. Gras also represented France at the 2004 World Junior Championships.

Besides these potential leaders, Warhurst’s squad houses a few sleepers with potential to score big for the Wolverines in the coming years. Junior Sebastien Louinis finished seventh in the 600-meter run at last year’s Big Ten Indoor Championships and was part of Michigan’s 2005 Big Ten Outdoor Champion distance medley relay. Since his high school years, Louinis has always had a nose for victory, finding that extra gear at the end of the race to push for the front of the pack. With another year of Warhurst’s tutelage there’s no telling how much Louinis will improve.

The final piece of the puzzle that will make up for the absence of Brannen and Willis are this year’s incoming freshman. Warhurst inked the top two finishers in the 2004 Michigan high school state cross-country championship — Justin Switzer of Waterford Kettering and John Black of Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice.

Switzer is perhaps the most talked about runner from Michigan since Dathan Ritzenhein broke the national high school record in the 3,200-meter run in 2001. Switzer won the 1,600-meter run in the Michigan high school state meet and placed third at this year’s Nike Outdoor Nationals. This puts him in line to threaten the four-minute barrier after working out on Warhurst’s watch, giving the Wolverines a chance to have five sub-four-minute milers. Switzer has also run 1:53 in the 800-meter run and scored 20 points a game on Kettering’s basketball team — the highest average in Oakland County.

Black won this year’s 3,200-meter run at the high school state meet, and his attitude will allow him to continue improving once he reaches Michigan. Black improved his times in cross-country and the 3,200-meter run throughout high school, soaking up whatever advice he could get from his coaches at Brother Rice. Black is an extremely coachable athlete that will likely thrive with Warhurst’s advice and the help of teammates with comparable talent.

From the seniors to the freshman, Warhurst still has an incredibly deep squad, music to the ears of anyone concerned about Michigan falling off the map with the loss of its top-two distance runners. With Brannen and Willis still training around Ann Arbor, all the remaining runners will have a great pair of role models for training.

This next year will be a great challenge for Warhurst as he tries to make the most of the deep talent pool that he has in the wings. But looking at his past records with scores of NCAA champions and All-Americans, there’s no man better for the job.

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