The Michigan men’s cross country team rode the performance of three All-Americans, including freshman phenom Alan Webb, to an 11th-place finish at the NCAA National Championships last year. This year, it’s out to prove it doesn’t need star power to succeed.

Paul Wong
Alan Webb only called Ann Arbor his home for one year. The freshman superstar left Michigan to run professionaly. (AP PHOTO)

This year Michigan coach Ron Warhurst is expecting a total team effort from the young Wolverines, and he is pleased with what he has seen so far.

“We’ve had some tremendous workouts, as far as having 10 or 12 guys together the whole way,” said Warhurst. “(When) a guy falls off the pack (they say), ‘Come on, let’s go. You gotta stay with us.’ That’s what builds your team.”

Team development will be very important for a senior-free group that lacks an experienced leader.

Two All-Americans, Mike Wisniewski and Mark Pilja, graduated. The third, Webb, left the team to pursue a professional running career.

This year’s team will feature a cast of leaders. Juniors Tom Greenless, Ryan Hesselink, and team captain Nick Stanko, along with sophomore Nathan Brannen, are among those expected to contribute.

Greenless lost 12 pounds in preparation for the season. Stanko, who is in charge of all the organizational aspects of the team, is looking to overcome tendonitis in his foot.

Joining that core group of veterans is Nick Willis, a freshman who ran a 1,500-meter race in 3:42 and has incredible finishing speed.

“You don’t need to be a senior to be a leader,” said Warhurst. “Even though Nick Willis is a freshman and Nate Brannen is a sophomore, I think their maturity level and experience in international competition makes them natural leaders.”

While the Wolverines may be youthful, they are still an experienced squad. Brannen, who has run 1:46 for 800 meters, recently represented Canada at the Commonwealth Games. Brannen, Greenless, Hesselink, and Brian Turner all competed at the NCAA Championships last season.

The Wolverines face an uphill battle if they are to match last year’s 11th-place national finish. They begin the season ranked No. 28. In the Big Ten, Michigan will face tough competition from Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana. To reach the NCAAs, the team must first win a regional that includes all those teams, plus perennial powerhouses Notre Dame, Butler and Eastern Michigan.

If the past is both gone and forgotten, look for this group to be successful. Many of the runners have shined in distances ranging from 400 meters to the mile. That pure speed, when combined with the endurance gained through running 90 miles a week, should make for an impressive group of athletes.

“I think if we stay healthy, we’re going to surprise some people,” Warhurst said. “These kids got a lot of pride.”

Michigan opens its season today at 4:30 p.m. with the Michigan Open at the University Golf Course.

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