The 2009 Minnesota men’s cross country team will be an interesting mix between the veterans and youngsters, the experienced runners and the rookies. For the Golden Gophers to find success this season, both groups will have to play their roles and fulfill their potential. The outcome could very well be one of the most exciting seasons in Minnesota history.
As head coach Steve Plasencia enters his 14th season at the helm of his alma mater, he will once again have the luxury of building the Maroon and Gold roster around a returning Big Ten Conference champion and All-American in Hassan Mead. The individual conference cross country crown was the first of five Big Ten titles Mead captured in his sophomore season, adding four track titles in the spring.
“Hassan is a great athlete and is becoming a solid team leader as well,” said Plasencia. “We obviously need him up front for our team to do well this season, but it will take team depth as well. I’m excited about our team overall. We are setting the bar pretty high.”
Mead, a junior, and senior Matt Barrett will serve as team captains this fall. The Gophers return seven letterwinners from the 2008 squad that finished 15th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. The roster also includes five redshirt freshmen and five true freshmen, who will battle for instrumental spots on the traveling roster this season.
The Gophers also need to find a replacement for Chris Rombough, Minnesota’s first and only three-time career cross country All-American. These are big shoes to fill but junior Ben Blankenship and Barrett are leading candidates.
The duo stepped up in the Gophers’ championship portion of the season a year ago, especially in the 10-kilometer races of the NCAA Midwest Region Championships and NCAA Championships, where Blankenship and Barrett finished third and fourth in Minnesota’s lineup. Both captured All-NCAA Midwest Region honors and Barrett was one spot (15th) from earning All-Big Ten acclaim. Blankenship went on to earn his first NCAA Track Championships appearance in the 1,500 meters during the track season in the spring.
All-NCAA Midwest Region performers Mike McFarland and Mike Torchia return for their junior seasons. McFarland was the Gophers’ number-five finisher at the NCAA meet a year ago and earned his second all-region honor. Torchia continues his struggle with injuries and may miss the 2009 season.
Sophomore Sean Olson completes the list of returning letterwinners for the Gophers. Olson worked his way into the mix and traveled to the NCAA meets as a team alternate. The top finish of his redshirt freshman season was running to the number-five spot for the Gophers at the Big Ten Championships.
Pieter Gagnon and Kevin Lachowitzer lead the pack of redshirt freshmen who will be looked upon to make an impact this season for the Gophers. Among the true freshmen, Steve Sulkin and Derek Storkel may contribute early in their Gopher careers.