Building on a phenomenal regular season in which the Badgers torched nearly all their competitors, the Wisconsin men’s cross country team is seeking to win its 13th consecutive Big Ten championship Sunday.
The Badgers return four of their five scorers from last year’s Big Ten championship victory when then-senior Landon Peacock out-sprinted an Indiana runner in the final 20 meters to edge out the Hoosier and take home the team title for the Badgers.
Indiana will once again be the toughest challenge for the experienced Wisconsin squad in this year’s Big Ten Championship, head coach Mick Byrne said in a press conference Monday.
This season, the large majority of Wisconsin’s leadership has come from senior Elliot Krause and juniors Mohammed Ahmed, Maverick Darling and Reed Connor.
“I think they’re all leaders,” Byrne said. “Every one of those guys knows what’s at stake here down the road. I think over the last two meets, the most important thing was that we come out of them not banged up, that we come out of them able to continue with our training plan because there’s a process as you head from that early part of the season to the championship part of the season.”
Ryan Collins, a senior transfer student from Virginia, was first to cross the finish line for the Badgers at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational Oct. 14. Collins finished 11th in the race, followed immediately by all four of Wisconsin’s leaders who all finished in the top 16 under 24 minutes.
During that meet, No. 2 Wisconsin defeated three top 10 teams in the nation, including No. 3 Brigham Young, No. 4 Stanford and No. 9 Princeton.
“Obviously, the Adidas meet was a great outing for us,” Byrne said. “It was exciting to come in and beat 21 out of the top 30 teams at home on the Thomas Zimmer Course, which is, in my mind, the best cross country course in the United States. It was great for the kids to run in front of their parents, grandparents and home fans.”
Earlier in the season, Wisconsin dominated No. 23 Oregon’s storied cross country program 54-29 at the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Springfield, Ore. In that race, Connor finished in 23:18 to lead the Badgers and finished 2nd overall. Byrne mentioned it was great to see various former UW runners come down from their professional training site in Portland, Ore. to watch the race.
Teamwork among the top five runners has helped the team immensely, according to Byrne. The Badgers have seemed comfortable running together and will help each other throughout the race by drafting off of one another instead of being stuck running alone with nobody to keep pace with.
However, Byrne noted that at some point in the team’s quest for a national championship, individuals will have to break away from the pack and attempt to reach their full potentials.
“Down the road at the ultimate stage, we’re going to have to give them the green light if we want to compete for a national title, or at least have a shot at it,” Byrne said. “I believe that we have five guys that have a really good shot at winning the individual title.”
The week after the heading into the Big Ten and other championship races season has a different feel, according to Byrne, as runners are under intense physical and mental pressure to run their best races.
Of course, the ultimate goal for the Badgers is to hoist the national champion trophy above their heads in Terre Haute, Ind., Nov. 21. Byrne has remained grounded in his expectation despite winning 20 consecutive conference championships, dating back to his coaching days at Iona College.
“For us, the main focus right now is this coming Sunday and defending our Big Ten championship,” Byrne said. “We won’t get too far out ahead of ourselves in terms of what’s going to happen after that. The kids are very excited. We know exactly what’s coming down the pipeline of Sunday.”