After disappointing results at the Adidas Invitational, the Wisconsin men’s cross-country team is looking to redeem itself at the Big Ten Championship Sunday in East Lansing, Mich.
This year, the Badgers are looking to capture their 14th consecutive title at the Big Ten Championship.
“We’re into championship week; it’s what we train for, it’s the meet of our season,” head coach Mick Byrne said at his press conference Monday. “We get excited about it. Our athletes are preparing for Big Ten Championships and beyond – it’s a saying we have.”
This week, top runners Mohammed Ahmed, Maverick Darling and Reed Connor will lead the team. Ahmed is heading into the meet as the defending champion and, according to Byrne, ready to claim the title once again. Ahmed did not compete at the Adidas Invitational, where the Badgers finished 17th.
“It was all about Mo, it was about him preparing as best he can for Big Ten’s and beyond,” Byrne said. “It was all about how he was feeling … he needed another few workouts, the last two workouts have been exceptionally good, better than anything he’s done here so far in his career. Now he wants to put those workouts to use and see where he’s at.”
Byrne is excited to have his three best runners together again, but other runners on the team will be forced into supporting roles to back up the team’s leaders.
While the Wisconsin head coach used previous races to gauge the talent and depth behind the top runners, their job will shift on Michigan State’s home course. And Byrne is confident his most established runners are ready to step up.
“There is no reason to think that these guys aren’t going to run well this Sunday,” Byrne said. “They’re very excited about putting on the uniform, they’re very excited about defending our Big Ten title, and they’re excited about some of the younger guys who can back them up.
“Obviously it helps having Mo Ahmed, Reed Connor and Maverick Darling up front, having guys like that with race experience and race savvy,” Byrne said. “They have a great ability to read a race. We see a lot of great athletes but they don’t always have the ability to read or lead a team or to read the race correctly.”
Two of the runners, sophomore Alex Hatz and senior Rob Finnerty, are the supporting athletes Byrne is talking about.
He said Finnerty ran well at the Adidas Invitational and compared the supporting roles of those runners to sweepers in soccer, their primary job to back up the leading teammates.
“We got to make sure that our other guys realize their role, Hatz and Finnerty have to understand that we don’t need them to be in that mix,” Byrne said. “We need them to be good supporters. Their job is to sit back, analyze what’s going on in the race and understand that the three big guns up front.”
Since the race is in East Lansing and Ann Arbor is not far away, it is likely that the Wolverines and Spartans will have plenty of supporters. But according to Byrne, the increased support for two of the Badgers’ biggest rivals only adds to the competition.
“Their athletes get excited about competing against Wisconsin as we do get excited about competing against those guys,” Byrne said.
With a near hegemony on the Big Ten cross country scene, the Badgers will have a big target on their back as they fight for yet another conference title. But they face tough competition from within their own conference as both Michigan and Indiana outpaced UW at the Adidas Invitational.
But the pressure is nothing new for a team that has turned itself into one of the top programs in the country over the last several decades.
“I don’t know if [the top three] consider it pressure,” Byrne said. “It’s something we talk about all the time, we prepare mentally for this part of the year. … They love the idea that they’ve got a target on their back, they get excited about that. They recognize the tradition and the history and, let’s face it, that’s why a lot of these guys came to Madison.”
“If you’re going to be a Badger and you’re going to wear that uniform, you have to expect the target on your back,” said Byrne. “People are going to come gunning for you.”