The Gophers return to action this Friday at the Notre Dame Invitational in South Bend, Ind.
The Minnesota men's cross country/track programs is directed by one of their own in Golden Gopher alum Steve Plasencia. Plasencia, a 1979 Minnesota graduate and an All-American runner for the Maroon and Gold, begins his 18th season at the helm of the cross country team and sixth as the head coach of the Minnesota men's cross track & field program.
The Gophers' men's cross country program has flourished under Plasencia's direction. The past 16 years have seen Minnesota make 14 trips to the NCAA Cross Country Championships with the 2007 squad celebrating an eighth-place finish, the third highest in school history. Overall, the Gophers have recorded seven top-20 NCAA finishes during the Plasencia era.
Plasencia's Gophers struggled to stay healthy in 2009, but finished the season strong placing 24th at the NCAA Championships. Hassan Mead continued to add to Gopher history winning his second Big Ten title and capturing All-America honors. Mead's 16th-place finish at NCAAs earned his third All-America honor, joining only Chris Rombough with that many national honors in a Gopher career.
Minnesota experienced success on both a team and individual level in 2008. The Gophers finished 15th in the NCAA Championships; a finish highlighted by Rombough becoming the very first Minnesota three-time All-American. Mead stole the headlines throughout the season winning the Big Ten and NCAA Midwest Region crowns before he too, ran to All-America honors as the NCAA meet. Including the two All-Americans, a Gopher-record six runners captured NCAA All-Midwest Region honors.
The 2007 season marked the first time in Minnesota history that three harriers captured All-America honors (Rombough, Mead and Forrest Tahdooahnippah). Mead as a true freshman became the first Gopher to collect All-America honors during his rookie season and also claimed Big Ten Freshman of the Year acclaim.
Before Plasencia took over the program in 1996, Minnesota had only run in eight NCAA Championships. Only twice, in Plasencia's rookie season and in 2006, did Minnesota fail to advance to the national meet.
Though the 2006 squad did not finish the season on the grand stage of the NCAA Championships, the season still held plenty successful conquests. The Gophers placed second at the Griak Invitational, Minnesota's highest finish ever in the prestigious event. Easily the individual highlights of the season came from Rombough capturing medalist honors at the Big Ten Championships, then going on to finish with All-America honors after a 14th-place showing at the NCAA Championships.
The Golden Gophers have captured NCAA Midwest Region titles three times (1999, 2001 and 2004) under Plasencia, but in 2005, Minnesota used strong regular-season showings in the Roy Griak Invitational and the Big Ten Championships to garner an at-large berth in the NCAA Championships' field. Leading the Gophers to a top-20 national finish was Antonio Vega, who finished 44th and collected All-America honors. Ryan Malmin, an All-American in 2004, became just the third Golden Gopher to compete in four NCAA Championships during a Minnesota career.
Vega was the 2005 Midwest Region medalist, joining two-time individual champion Andrew Carlson and Mead, as Gophers to take the prize at the regional meet. Vega was honored as 2005 Midwest Region Runner of the Year and later ended his Gopher career as a four-time all-region performer.
Carlson led the charge in leading Minnesota to the Midwest Region crown in 2004, outscoring its nearest competitor by 31 points and landing a school-record five runners on the all-region team. In 2001, Minnesota won the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships, while in 1999 the competition was titled the NCAA District V Championships. Plasencia was honored as the Region Coach of the Year after all three titles in 1999, 2001 and 2004.
Competing in one of the nation's toughest cross country conferences, the Golden Gophers have annually finished among the upper echelon of the Big Ten Conference. Plasencia has coached Gophers (Rombough, 2006; Mead, 2008, 2009) to Big Ten cross country titles in three of the last four seasons. Last year, four Big Ten schools ran in the NCAA Championships. In 2004, seven Big Ten schools advanced to the NCAAs, matching the record number of conference teams that competed in the national meet in 2002.
In July of 2008, Plasencia was elevated to the position of Minnesota's head coach for the men's cross country/track program. His first season as head track coach turned out to be one of the finest in school history as well, with the Gophers winning indoor and outdoor Big Ten team titles. Plasencia was honored as the Big Ten Coach of the Year for both the indoor and outdoor seasons. The Gophers and Plasencia repeated the sweep in 2010. Prior to being named the head coach, Plasencia has served as an assistant track coach since joining the Minnesota staff in 1996.
Before becoming the eighth head coach in Minnesota cross country history and succeeding legendary Gopher coach Roy Griak, Plasencia gained coaching experience working with world-class athletes. In addition to coaching himself to two Olympic games Plasencia advised training partners 1984 Olympian Don Clary and Mike Bilyeu, who finished sixth in the 5,000 meters at the 1992 Olympic Trials, on their training.
Plasencia was able to successfully mesh his expertise as a coach with a successful running career. He ran competitively from 1972 to 2001, and remains one of Minnesota's most decorated runners. Plasencia was a three-time cross country and two-time track All-American in the late 70s. He served as the team captain in 1977 and won the Fred O. Watson Award for the most valuable Golden Gopher cross country runner in 1976, `77 and `78.
Plasencia still holds four Minnesota cross country records, three of which were accomplished at a championship event. Plasencia was inducted into Minnesota's "M" Club Hall of Fame in 1994.
Plasencia's competitive career did not end when he completed his Golden Gopher career. Plasencia went on to represent the United States in the 10,000 meters at both the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, and the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain. He was also the 1990 U.S. 10,000-meters champion. Plasencia nearly made his third straight trip to Olympic Games but finished fourth in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and fifth in the 5,000 meters at the Track and Field Trials.
In addition to his Olympic experiences, Plasencia represented the U.S. in four World Championships. His top finishes were an eighth-place finish in the 10,000-meters in 1987 and a 10th-place showing in the marathon in 1995. He was inducted into the Minnesota Track and Field Hall of Fame in the fall of 1996.
Plasencia earned his bachelor's degree in business from Minnesota in 1979. He later earned a master's degree from Oregon in 1987. Prior to joining the Golden Gopher staff, he served as the director of sports respiratory medicine for Allergy and Asthma Associates in Eugene, Ore. He also worked as a cardiac rehabilitation therapist at Eugene's Sacred Heart Hospital.
Plasencia and his wife Theresa reside in Shoreview, Minn. They have two sons, Ryan and Alex.