senioThe Minnesota men’s cross country team ran in their eighth consecutive NCAA Championships last fall with four seniors among their seven competitors. Despite the graduation of an experienced corps including two-time All-American Andrew Carlson from a year ago, the Golden Gophers enter the 2005 season confident a ninth trip to the national meet is in the works. Another highlight of the season will be playing host to the Big Ten Championships.
“Obviously, it’s our goal to return to the NCAA Championships, said Minnesota head coach Steve Plasencia. “But hosting the Big Ten Championships will be exciting since have the opportunity to host the event only once every 10 years. My hope would be to put a strong effort into the Big Ten Championships.” Plasencia begins his 10th season at Minnesota but this will be the first time the Gophers’ have hosted the conference meet during his tenure.
Six letterwinners form the foundation of a youthful Gopher squad but three of them enter the season with postseason credentials. Senior Ryan Malmin earned All-America honors in 2004 and will serve as the team captain with Erik Grumstrup. Grumstrup, an all-region performer in 2001, redshirted the 2004 season to add a seasoned veteran leader to the young squad this season. Junior Antonio Vega is a two-time All-Midwest Region honoree and will be looked to step into a bigger role this season.
“To lose a guy like Andrew Carlson, with his stature and running ability, is difficult,” explains Plasencia. “We won’t be able to replace Andrew with a single runner but now is the payback for having Grumstrup redshirt last season. Erik and Ryan give us an experienced pair to lead our team this season. They have organized the guys in training throughout the summer and have such a wining attitude.” Malmin earned coaches’ All-America honors in 2004 and has run to the Gophers’ number-one position in each of the last two NCAA Championships. A two-time all-region honoree, as well as an All-Big Ten second-team performer, Malmin has the credentialed resume of a runner poised to make his senior season a memorable one. Malmin already owns the fifth-fastest time in school history over a 10-kilometer course but Plasencia is hoping for even more from his senior co-captain.
“A year ago, Ryan had a real strong summer of training and he has put forth the same type of determination and hard work coming into this season,” said Plasencia. “We look for him to get off to a good start and enjoy a productive senior season.”
Since Grumstrup last competed in cross country (2003 season), the other Gopher senior co-captain has focused on bettering his performance on the track and experienced success first advancing to the NCAA Midwest Track and Field Championships in the 5,000-meter run in 2003 and 2004 and then the 3,000-meter steeplechase last spring. Plasencia looks for this same drive from Grumstrup as he returns to the harrier course.
An early indicator of the Gopher season may lay in the health of two-time all-region runner Vega. Vega is recovering from a hip injury suffered during the track season. Plasencia hopes Vega is 100 percent come the championship portion of the season. “We need the guys who have already proven themselves to be healthy for us to live up to our potential this season,” said Plasencia.
The three other returning letterwinners are sophomore Justin Grunewald, and senior Ben Hanson and Trent Riter. Grunewald showed steady improvement in his rookie season and earned a spot on the Gophers’ NCAA Championships roster.
“Grunewald is a hard-working guy who has put in big miles during the summer,” said Plasencia. “He’s a year stronger and will benefit from the experience he gained a year ago.”
Riter and Hanson are cut more into the mold of track athletes who use the cross country season as a training ground, however Plasencia, likens the pair to former Gopher all-region cross country perfomer and All-American 1,500-meter runner Martin Roebeck from a few years ago.
“These guys have shown that they can contribute and will be in the mix in that five-six-seven positions on the team,” said Plasencia. “They are veterans who are going to make it tough for the younger guys to just come in and step into traveling spots on this team.”
Squad members Todd Johnson and Mike Van Beusekom and five redshirt freshmen - Severyn Claymore, Matt Damico, Ben Puhl, Sejien Takamura and Luke Walker - will battle for traveling spots this season. “In terms of distance runner, I’ve never had more distance runners when compared to middle-distance,” said Plasencia. “With these guys, it all depends on how they develop. We need two or three guys to develop into Big Ten caliber runners this season. This group needs to start to compete at a higher level and step up to help the team. Of the group, I believe that Walker is the guy who may see start to see emerge the quickest this season.”
The Gophers also add two transfers into the mix, both of whom are Minnesota natives with extensive cross country experience. David VanOrsdel competed for two years at Villanova, while Will Weldin competed at NCAA Division II Western State. Weldin helped Western to the Division II national title in 2002 but is recovering from a pelvis stress fracture and could be limited in his contributions this fall. “Van Orsel has a good cross country background, both at Villanova and in high school here in Minnesota,” said Plasencia. “He has a chance to make an impact. He’s training hard and is a team guy.”
“For Weldin, this year is all about getting healthy and we’ll see where we go from there,” added Plasencia. “We recruited both Welden and Van Orsel out of high school and are excited to see them come back home and run at Minnesota.”
The Gophers’ top incoming freshman is Chris Rombough, a two-time Wisconsin state champion and the fifth-place finisher at the 2004 Foot Locker Nationals. Rombough is easily one of the most talented recruits in Minnesota distance running history.
“Chris is the ideal size for a distance runner as he’s long and lean and has a natural strength,” says Plasencia of his prized freshman. “He has the talent to fit into our top five immediately. I’m looking forward to seeing him running wearing the Maroon and Gold.”
The three other freshman joining the Gophers this fall – Matt Barrett, Benjamin Kampf and David Krueger – will likely redshirt the season. The Gophers will once again play host to the prestigious Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 24. The Invitational, celebrating its 20th year in 2005, is annually one of the largest meets in the country. Minnesota will also serve as the host of Big Ten Championships on Oct. 30.
“The Big Ten is always topsy-turvy depending on the day,” said Plasencia. “It’s going to be a dog fight. With the Griak Invitational, our course is well-known but we will still have the advantage of not having to travel and of getting to compete in front of family and friends.”