The NCAA Midwest Regional provided the last chance for the Gophers men’s and women’s cross country teams to make their final push to gain entry into the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
On the women’s side, head coach Gary Wilson’s squad headed into the regional after a disappointing Big Ten Championships which saw their two-year reign as Big Ten champions come to an end with a third-place finish.
Hoping to keep another streak intact, Wilson’s team headed to the NCAA Midwest Regional seeking its third consecutive regional title.
Minnesota entered the race a virtual lock for the NCAA Championships. Top-three finishes in three invitationals combined with a third-place finish at the Big Ten Championships gave the Gophers a strong résumé for an at-large bid, but they proved Saturday they would not wait for the selection committee to grant them entry into nationals.
“We ran like a team possessed today,” Wilson said. “They were disappointed at Big Ten’s; I think they were on a little bit of a mission to regain that little bit of moxie.”
As the team’s leader all year, it was only fitting that Megan Duwell pace the Gophers to a first-place finish. The senior finished the 6-kilometer race in a school-record time of 20:14.5.
Duwell’s strong finish sparked the rest of the team, as for the first time in Gophers history all seven runners earned all-region honors for finishing in the top 25.
“That’s the first time we’ve ever done that,” Wilson said. “We’ve always had six and our seventh has always been 26th, so that was fun.”
The most surprising finish of the day on the women’s side was Amy Laskowske . The senior struggled at the Big Ten Championship, finishing 38th and was one of the last runners chosen by Wilson to compete for Minnesota Saturday. The move paid off, as Laskowske placed second for the Gophers, finishing ninth overall.
“You put her in a tough situation and she’ll produce,” Wilson said. “She’s a gamer; she doesn’t talk very much, but she did her talking on the course today.”
What impressed Wilson most about his team and what he thinks earned them the win was how they stayed together and held Illinois’ fourth runner to a 22nd-place finish.
“The thing we did well today was we put seven people ahead of Illinois’ fourth runner,” Wilson said. “In the Big Ten meet they put four kids ahead of our second runner, so we have seven kids in front of their fourth today; that was the key.”
While the women’s team entered the weekend virtually assured of a spot, the men’s team knew they needed a good weekend if they wanted to earn an at-large berth into the NCAA Championships.
Head coach Steve Plasencia’s squad entered the weekend hoping to finish better than Iowa State, Oklahoma and Tulsa — the three schools all hoping with the Gophers to earn one of 13 at-large bids.
Despite another dominant performance by junior Hassan Mead, the Gophers again lacked consistency with their third through fifth runners, causing Minnesota to finish fourth overall, behind Oklahoma and Iowa State.
“We were hoping that we could either qualify automatically or be third,” Plasencia said. “This meet was about qualifying for the NCAA; I thought a few of the other guys ran pretty well. We just weren’t quite good enough.”
Mead continues his dominant junior season, which now has to be considered one of the best ever for a Gophers runner. Mead won the 10-kilometer race with a time of 30:21.9, a full 28 seconds ahead of second place.
After winning the regional title last year, Mead now cements his place as the first back-to-back regional champion in Minnesota history.
“He had a pretty convincing win,” Plasencia said. “Hassan is trying to win just to help the team.”
Saying he would go to church extra early Sunday morning, Plasencia waited for the selection committee’s decision, and Sunday night at 6 p.m. they made their announcement.
Minnesota is in.
“Obviously everybody’s real, real happy to get another shot,” Plasencia said. “One of the main things of the season, we look forward to going to the national meet.”
The NCAA Cross Country Championships, the Gophers final meet of the season, will be held in Terra Haute, Ind. on Nov. 23.
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