As the 2004 season began, the Michigan men’s cross-country team appeared to be in its best position ever. Senior captain Nate Brannen was in top shape, junior Nick Willis was coming off a trip to the Athens Olympics and the Wolverines added freshmen Victor Gras and Mike Woods, two of the NCAA’s top recruits.
But the season drew to a close w ith a disappointing 26th-place finish out of 30 teams at the NCAA Championships yesterday in Terre Haute, Ind. It was the culmination of a roller coaster ride of tough injuries that took the Wolverines from national contender status to a mediocre performance at nationals.
As the season went on, the team was excited at the prospect of competing with perennially untouchable conference champion Wisconsin. A regional victory and a possible top-five or top-10 finish at nationals were also on their minds. But when sophomore Andrew Ellerton was lost for the season in September, the team struggled to replace him.
Soon after, Gras and Willis also fell victim to the rigors of training. Suddenly the Wolverines were turning to their reserves for the conference, regional and national championships.
Brannen remained healthy and led the way for the Wolverines in Terre Haute, finishing the 10,000-meter race in 31:23.4. He placed 17th out of 242, just as he did a year ago in the NCAA Championship. Yesterday’s course was muddy, and prevented Brannen from running the race the way that he wanted to.
“I’m pretty disappointed with my finish,” Brannen said. “I was hoping for top-10 or maybe top-five. I run the (800-meter run), so I’m more of a rhythm runner. Today, I couldn’t get a rhythm. I was stuck in the mud every other step.”
Michigan coach Ron Warhurst agreed that Brannen might have finished higher in better conditions.
“He’s not a mudder,” Warhurst said. “On a fresh, fast course, he could have been better, but it wasn’t and we don’t know now what he might have done.”
Junior Andrew Bauer was Michigan’s fifth finisher at the Great Lakes Regional on November 13th, but he stepped up his performance, finishing second for the Wolverines and 159th overall. Senior Matt Mulvaney finished one second behind Bauer.
Michigan’s scoring was rounded out by Woods and junior Dan Murray. The pair finished 174th and 180th, respectively.
Though Brannen and the Wolverines were disappointed with their performance, they are ready to move past their struggles and revive their team during track season.
“It doesn’t affect how I’ll run in indoor (track),” Brannen said. “I’m a track runner so (cross country) is just training for track. It helps to know that I am fitter and stronger than I have ever been.”
Warhurst acknowledged that today was just not the Wolverines’ day, and they will likely bounce back from their mediocre performance.
“It was a long day,” Warhurst said. “It was extremely sloppy and extremely muddy, and the course did not suit us. Others just responded better.”