The last time the Michigan cross country team won the Big Ten Championships, most of the team’s current runners were in grade school.
Since that day in 1998, when the Wolverines ran to their seventh Big Ten Title under Michigan coach Ron Warhurst, Wisconsin has dominated the Big Ten Championships, winning nine straight.
And on Sunday at the University of Michigan Golf Course, Wisconsin is looking to make it 10.
“There’s no big game plan here. It’s just get out and try to run Michigan into the ground,” first-year coach Mick Byrne said in a statement released by the Wisconsin Athletic Department yesterday.
Warhurst knows that while Michigan and Wisconsin are evenly matched on paper, beating Wisconsin won’t be easy.
“Champions don’t give up titles, people have to take the title from them,” Warhurst said. “They’re not going to lay down.”
Fifth-year seniors Stuart Eagon and defending 2007 Big Ten individual champion Matt Withrow lead the Badgers. Both have yet to race this season due to injuries, but plan to race on Sunday.
Minnesota, which is led by 2006 Big Ten individual champion senior Chris Rombough and sophomore Hassan Mead, is another contender. Mead is coming off the performance of a lifetime at the NCAA Pre-Nationals in Terra Haute, Ind., where he posted the school record in the eight-kilometer run and one of the best times in the country this year (23:33.1).
The Wolverines, however, are focusing on the team title.
Redshirt junior co-captain Brandon Fellows said he and his teammates would not make any type of move in the race on Sunday that could put the team title in jeopardy.
“We’re really focusing on getting the team championship and not risking anything by having someone go for an individual win,” Fellows said. “It’s all about the team.”
The Wolverines have two big advantages. First, their depth and experience should prove crucial during the race. Six of the nine runners ran in last years’ Big Ten Championships, and all nine have posted impressive times this season.
Second, the home-course advantage will have the Wolverines running on familiar ground.
“It’s one of the hardest courses in the country,” senior co-captain Lex Williams said. “It’s a tough course, but we’ve been out there four mornings a week doing workouts. When the other teams get here, they’re going to be surprised.”
While redshirt sophomore Ciaran O’Lionaird believes that the home course will prove to be an advantage, he knows the timing of when certain runners make their moves will decide the outcome of the race. On such a hilly course, if one runner breaks away too early, it could cost them the race.
“We’re definitely not going to be naive enough to think that on our course that we can just take it, be gone and run away from everybody,” O’Lionaird said. “It’s too close of a team race for any team to be able to do that.”
The No. 9 Wolverines are hungry to claim a Big Ten title this year, and would be disappointed with anything less. Coming off an impressive third place finish at the Pre-Nationals Meet, which they ran on tired legs, the Wolverines are hoping to improve upon their times.
With the hilly, intense course, Warhurst believes most runners will follow the Wolverines’ lead and wait to break until the last 2,000 meters, and if the past few meets are a precursor of the Big Ten Championships, the final stretch of the race should be neck in neck between Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.
Warhurst is hoping his runners see the opportunity that has been placed in front of them to win a championship. He believes that if they put together their years of training with their mental toughness and make smart decisions during the race, they will be in position to claim the title, and end Wisconsin’s winning streak.
“You only get one opportunity to do something like this, to be this close,” Warhurst said. “So they have to take advantage of it.”