After claiming the NCAA Great Lakes Regional title for the 11th-consecutive year, the Wisconsin men’s cross country team heads to Louisville, Ky., to defend its national championship this weekend.
The Badgers, who have qualified for every championship meet since 1972, go into the weekend as surprising underdogs, but that is a position this Wisconsin team is more than comfortable in.
“There are a lot of teams out there this year,” senior Reed Connor said. “Right now it looks like Colorado and Oklahoma State are a little bit better than everyone else. Knowing the past, however, one of those teams is going to blow up completely and there’s going to be the BYUs, the Ionas and the Wisconsins, who are just as good and will be ready to take advantage.”
Perhaps the toughest part about championship weekend is the mentality one must have going in to avoid a collapse could be on the horizon — something Connor alluded to.
“For these guys (Mohammed Ahmed, Maverick Darling and Connor) it’s their fourth national championship so they’re seasoned veterans,” head coach Mick Byrne said. “As a coach you trust that they’ve learned something each of those years. For the new guys, well, we have to work on them a bit more and it’ll just be trying to keep those guys relaxed and that’s where the older guys come into play.”
Byrne explained it would be up to Ahmed, Darling and Connor to make sure the younger guys stay “relaxed and do not overthink the meet because you don’t want them to spend the entire week thinking about the enormity of this event.”
A mental sport, as Connor called it, cross country meets are often just as much of a test of mental ability as they are physical, and the Badgers are prepared to meet the challenge this meet presents with everything they have.
“If you can keep it a normal week, you’re going to do well in the meet,” Connor explained. “Some teams go to nationals and all of a sudden they have a solemn look on their face like it’s some sort of death march and that’s not going to get you a national title. Last year we had a lot of fun, and we all know how that turned out.”
If having fun is what it will take to earn a national championship, then this group of Badgers should be the favorites instead of the underdogs.
“I recently started playing video games so I think that’s made my demeanor a little bit better,” senior Maverick Darling said with a smile. “Everyone has their thing that they do but it’s important for us all to go to that place where our minds are free of everything.”
There is, however, some thinking and planning that must go in preparation-wise in the days leading up to the meet if the Badgers want to match last year’s success.
“Oklahoma State is the team to beat and they are the favorite with the most talent,” Darling said. “Colorado is a good team also, but the team that everyone tends to forget about — besides us — is Iona, Mick’s old team.”
“They’ve won two of the past three championships and they’re coming off a good showing at regionals,” Byrne said of Oklahoma State. “So the pressure is on those guys right now and they’re in a little bit of unfamiliar territory, and for us it’s just the fact that anything can happen and I think our guys know that.”
Connor simplified the Badgers’ strategy for this weekend’s meet and gave their secret for locking up a second national title in as many years.
“When we’re in the race,” Connor said, “we look for orange jerseys and we start counting to position ourselves. Oklahoma State is orange, Iona is yellow, BYU is tricky but they’re white. We love to pick out colors and figure out where they are so that we can strategize. Last year we were fortunate enough to have only two guys in orange in front of us so all we had to do was not let anyone pass us and we knew we were going to win.”
While this year’s team — currently ranked fourth in the nation — may not seem as serious a threat when compared to last year, Byrne said it has the momentum and the passion necessary to pull off the upset.
“Right now our guys are feeling pretty confident,” Byrne said. “We just have to take advantage of that heading into the weekend.”
“This year, it’s safe to say we’re coming from behind,” Connor admitted. “While we are underdogs, it will be fun to shock a lot of people. We are Badgers, and there’s a tradition to protect.”
Wisconsin will make its attempt at a repeat Saturday, Nov. 17, at 12:15 p.m.