The Michigan men’s cross country team was without two of its top five runners for the Great Lakes Regional race in West Lafayette on Saturday, and it had to find a way to secure a bid to next week’s NCAA Championship Meet.
Junior Brandon Fellows, the Wolverines’ fifth runner, was scratched the week before the race with a stiff knee and replaced by freshman Bobby Aprill. Senior Justin Switzer, the team’s No. 2 finisher at the Big Ten Championships two weeks earlier, did not run to preserve himself for the finals.
Michigan’s new top five runners had to step up big for the Wolverines, as only the top two finishing teams automatically qualify for next week’s finals. And they did just that. On a cold and rainy day, with temperatures in the high 30s, the ninth-ranked Wolverines finished second out of 28 teams to clinch an invitation to the NCAA Championships on Nov. 24 in Terre Haute, Ind.
Senior captain Lex Williams led Michigan with an eighth-place finish (31:42.5). Sophomore Ciaran O’Lionaird, junior Sean McNamara and sophomore Craig Forys all finished within two-tenths of a second behind Williams, finishing ninth, 10th and 11th. Senior Seth Thibodeau rounded out the scoring for the Wolverines, finishing 24th (32:05) in the 10,000-meter race.
“The race plan was to stay, hang out, run together in a group,” Michigan head coach Ron Warhust said. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
Williams, who finished last for the Wolverines just a week before at the Big Ten Championships, knew what he had to do to improve his finish this week.
“I had a plan in my head to go out real conservative, and then I saw the three guys (McNamara, O’Lionard and Forys) working up front,” Williams said. “I worked my way up to them at about the 6K, and then we were together for the rest of the race.”
The strategy worked, and it also helped Michigan to stay fresh for the finals. The Wolverines ran comfortably and should all be available for next week.
Wisconsin won the region for the 10th straight year, finishing 23 points in front of second-place Michigan. The top two teams in the region automatically qualify for next week’s finals.
“Coming out of it, not running your number two and five (runners), and then running the way we did, it was the best run we’ve had so far this year,” Warhurst said. “Hopefully, we can capitalize on it and have the best run of the year next week.”