All good things must come to an end, and for the Wisconsin men’s cross-country team, the end came last fall at the Big Ten Championships.
After 14 consecutive Big Ten Titles dating back to 1999, the Badgers had their unprecedented run of conference championships terminated when they finished third behind Indiana and Michigan.
To put the string of titles into perspective, Michigan State, which has 14 top finishes, is the only team to have as many overall conference championships as the Badgers won during the streak. In the grand scheme of things, even including last season’s race, Wisconsin has won an eye-opening 46 of the last 97 Big Ten Championship races.
Wisconsin’s dominance has been made evident to the rest of the conference, but the yearly title has become a point of intense pride, which made the fall from the top that much more difficult.
“It is always the expectation to win,” redshirt sophomore Malachy Schrobilgen said. “Guys don’t come here to lose Big Ten Championships.
“That’s always the expectation, is we’re going to be in the hunt. That title is ours. It belongs at Wisconsin.”
However, considering the talent Wisconsin lost from the front of its top seven runners two years ago, the Badgers probably had no business even being in the top three last year. Wisconsin lost three key pieces after 2012 in Olympian and four-time All-American Mohammed Ahmed and two-time All-Americans, Reed Connor and Maverick Darling.
But under head coach Mick Byrne, who enters his seventh season at the helm this year, UW had an individual Big Ten title winner for the third time in the last four years with Schrobilgen taking top honors in his first year of collegiate competition a season ago.
The Badgers had their string of 11 Great Lakes Regional titles come to a halt a week later, but they still finished second as a team to extend their run of making the NCAA Championships to 42 straight seasons, an NCAA record.
Wisconsin loses two more seniors heading into this season, and Byrne will have one of his youngest groups in his time as the head man, including eight true freshmen on the 2014 roster.
With the large crop of youth, the new trio of leaders, including Schrobilgen and seniors Alex Hatz and Michael Van Voorhis, has a big task on their hands to chase another Big Ten title. But their tutelage under past leaders like Ahmed, Darling and Connor give them experience beyond the course.
“These guys are veterans,” Byrne said of Schrobilgen, Hatz and Van Voorhis. “They know what it’s like to carry the torch for Mav, Reed, Elliot [Krause], Mo and those guys, and they take great pride in that.”
It’s not an easy task to fill the voids left by the departures from the last two years, but as Schrobilgen explained, the legacies left by past runners act as motivation.
“There is pressure there, but I think that’s what drives us to run faster and be better is just knowing that we have those big shoes to fill and … that there’s a lot of work that goes into that to even come close to that kind of potential,” Schrobilgen said.
“It’s hard because we don’t have them there to show us the way anymore, but sometimes you just have to go out and do it yourself.”
Besides Hatz and Van Voorhis, Wisconsin has only one other upperclassman on the roster in Sam Hacker. The rest of the 19 roster spots are occupied by freshmen or sophomores, with 12 freshmen or redshirt freshmen making up a bulk of the team.
The biggest challenge Wisconsin faces this year will be transitioning those younger runners from high school training and racing to the college level. Unlike high school where all races are five kilometers, college races are either 8k or 10k, and as Byrne remarked, both the quantity and quality of running will have to improve for the younger guys.
“Getting them stronger is the biggest challenge,” Byrne said. “Getting their heads wrapped around, ‘Hey, we’re going 8k. We’re going 10k.’
“For them, you feel a little shock factor right now, but hopefully they understand that they have a role to play somewhere down the road here. That’s just keeping them focused and keeping them with a positive attitude, not getting overwhelmed by the whole thing.”
But despite the youth and the inevitable transition to the college scene, there’s no doubt that this new bunch of runners for Wisconsin has a wealth of talent. Included in the newest recruiting class is 2013 Nike Cross-Country National Champion Kai Wilmot and “seasoned veteran” at the international level Morgan McDonald, as Byrne referred to the freshman Australian native, among others.
With all that potential it’s only a matter of time before the freshman and underclassmen are serious contributors to the Badgers.
“Everything this year is very much about competing well at the Big Ten meet, but [also] laying the foundation for the future … when you lose guys like Mohammed Ahmed, Reed Connor, Maverick Darling, Elliot Krause like we have over the last two years – it’s going to take a step back, and that’s okay. Now, it’s about planning and making smart decisions with these kids for the future,” Byrne said.
One streak may be over and this year might be a season of building for years down the road, but it’s only a matter of time before the Wisconsin cross-country dynasty is rebuilt.