The Wisconsin men’s cross country team is not unaccustomed to winning. Having won four of their five meets this year, including their 14th-straight Big Ten Championship two weeks ago, the sixth-ranked Badgers look to continue their success at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Friday.
After winning the NCAA championship last season, the road to defending the title starts at the Great Lakes Regional, which returns to the Zimmer Championship Course in Madison for the first time since 1974. Much like past events, the Badgers have found consistent success in the regional competition, having won the last 10 in a row.
Senior runner and four-time first team all-Big Ten selection Maverick Darling hopes to carry over the energy from the Big Ten Championship to the Great Lakes Regional.
“The momentum right now is really in our favor,” Darling said. “I think any time you can win a conference championship, your spirits kind of get uplifted a little bit, especially after the Adidas Invite. I think the chemistry and the vibe on the team’s been really good since then and to carry that into these next two meets, it’s really great.”
Darling, along with fellow seniors Reed Connor, Mohammed Ahmed and Rob Finnerty, will be among 11 Badgers running in the meet trying to claim one of the top two team spots and giving them an automatic bid to the national championship meet Nov. 17.
The Great Lakes Regional will bring in heavy competition for the Badgers, with 32 teams from Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio competing, including four teams ranked in the top 30. Connor says the team is focusing on itself despite the strength of the competition.
“We’ll just run like we did at the Big Ten [Championship],” Connor said. “We know we’re one of the strongest teams there. I mean Mo [Ahmed], [Maverick] and I, we’ll do our job up front getting the low stick and everyone else has to work in that pack and get the spots.”
Expectations are high for this Badger team as anything but an appearance in the national championship would be considered a disappointment. But head coach Mick Byrne says his team, especially the four seniors, has what it takes to advance to the final and most important meet of the year next weekend.
“They know exactly what they have to do, they just have an instinct,” Byrne said. “This is their fourth regional meet and I’m pretty confident that those guys will do a real good job and bring along the rest of this team.”
Byrne was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the fifth-consecutive year and with 17-straight Coach of the Year awards at his former school, Iona of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, he now has a combined 22-straight Coach of the Year awards.
Byrne and the rest of the Badger cross country team will welcome the Great Lakes Regional back to the Badgers’ home course for the first time in 38 years and with it comes the advantage of running in front of fellow students and fans.
“I just think it’s great to hear all the people say Wisconsin,” Darling said. “Sometimes when you’re stuck out there in the middle of the race and you’re starting to feel real bad, having someone yell ‘Go Wisconsin’ or ‘Go Maverick,’ it really uplifts you.”
Similarly, Connor is looking forward to running such a big race in front of the home crowd.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Why not go out with fans around, you know? I mean it’s cross country and the fanbase is limited but being at a home meet, that’s as good as it gets for us.”
The Badgers are taking a win or go home attitude Friday and success will only arrive with a top-two finish and a 42nd-consecutive trip to the NCAA Championship.
It won’t be easy with top teams like Michigan, Indiana and Notre Dame looking to dethrone the 2011 national champions.
“We’re respectable with other schools and we know that they’re always coming after us and we have to work hard to stay on top of the pile,” Byrne said.
It will be the last race at the Zimmer Championship Course for UW’s four seniors and they want nothing more than to go out on top. And Connor knows what this 2012 Wisconsin team must do to earn the desired result Saturday.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about getting to nationals, and that’s the plan,” Connor said.