Tuesday, October 09, 2007

MIAC Men: Johnnies Stalked by Knights, Pipers

Back in early September, DtB previewed the MIAC women’s cross country landscape ahead of a season-opening clash between 2004 and 2005 champs Carleton and 2006 victors St. Thomas -- teams we dubbed the 2007 favorites.

Of course, St. Olaf won the race that we spotlighted as a preview battle between the best two teams in the conference! And, they’ve looked like the MIAC favorites ever since.

It’s probably all the better, then, that’s we’re only getting to the men’s side of the MIAC ledger now, a month-plus into the harrier season. We'll probably have a better idea of what we're talking about this time.

The Favorites

2006 MIAC titlists St. John’s appear to be the team to beat at Como Golf Course on October 27 when the MIAC sorts things out officially. The 5th place team in NCAA Division III last year returns all its scorers from 2006. The Johnnies opened the 2007 season ranked #5.

St. John’s seemed to stumble slightly two weekends ago in Oregon, finishing 3rd at the Willamette Invitational. Their #11 ranked hosts handily beat the Johnnies. St. John’s Chris Erichsen and Kelly Fermoyle took the top two spots in the meet, but it was a long wait until the rest of the Johnnie scorers appeared on the homestretch.

“I’m not quite sure what to make of our greater gap,” St. John’s coach Tim Miles said. “Probably a combination of our top two running better and the others being a bit off their very good Saint John’s Invitational performances. Whatever the case, all eight had their race faces on and competed well.”

St. John’s, which tied D2-ranked MSUMankato at their home meet, has so far been without the services of their top finisher at the MIAC meet last year, Mitch VanBruggen, although Miles expects the senior to be racing again as soon as this weekend.

The Challengers

St. John’s lost two spots in the D3 poll after Willamette and the MIAC race seemed to tighten a bit after Carleton (#27) and Hamline (#35) ran well at the Roy Griak meet that same weekend. The Knights finished 4th there with 183 points. The “Ham-Dogs” were a place behind with 214.

“I was very pleased with the Griak meet,” Carleton’s first-year head coach Dave Ricks said. “This was our best showing in a number of years there. Quentin Kennedy, Joe Sepe, and Mark Felice all have huge upsides. These guys have no idea how good they can be. John Nowinski and Eamon Monaghan are "game-day" guys. They really compete well."

Carleton, third in the MIAC last fall and runner-up the three seasons prior to that under the now-retired Bill Terriquez, is blessed with a squad full of seniors who have all played scoring roles for the program. 2006 national meet qualifier Ryan Martinez, though on the roster this year, appears unlikely to compete this year due to injury.

“We have GREAT senior leadership,” Ricks wrote to DtB. “In fact, we are doing "meet" captains this year because every one of our seniors has leadership qualities."

At Griak, Hamline also appeared to put themselves back into the MIAC picture after an unexpectedly poor showing at the St. Olaf Invitational earlier in the season.

“We did get off the mat for the Griak,” Hamline coach Paul Schmaedeke said. “I have not started the season very well for a number of years. We stopped running a meet the first week of September a couple of years ago because our guys just didn't want to race that early. Hopefully they have a sense as to what is important and what they need to do to get ready to be their best in November."

Hamline is faced with different leadership situation than Carleton. The Knights graduated seniors Travis Bristow, Chris Yotter, and Tony Klappa and are without Brandon Gleason who is recovering from the injuries he suffered when struck by a truck while training last winter.

“A couple of guys looked around and realized that if we are going to be any good and go back to nationals [they] need to step up and make a difference,” Schmaedeke said. “Hopefully a combination of psychological maturation and training age."

The Pipers are powered by the pack-running of Jon Murphy, Ian Bauer, Kevin Groh, Dan
Steinbrecher, and Dan Peterson.

The Context

The form sheet going into the 2007 MIAC meet looks a bit like last year's, but with teams trading rolls. In 2006, Hamline was the defending champ and favorite, with St. John’s and Carleton looked strong but unlikely to have enough to pull an upset.

St. John’s, of course, left Como with the trophy.

This year, the Johnnies wear the favorites’ garb – including the top-10 NCAA rank the Pipers held in 2006 – and must contend, themselves, with two solid contenders … and expectations.

“I do believe it got to some of our guys last year,” Schmaedeke said of the favorites’ baggage.

“We tried too hard at times and had too many expectations and were too concerned about what other people thought."

“Being an underdog is more comfortable and more fun,” he admitted.

St. John’s and Hamline will race one-another for the first time this season at Saturday’s Jim Drews Invitational in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Carleton competes at the Lewis and Clark Pioneer Open in Oregon this weekend.

(Full disclosure: I’m a St. John’s graduate, I was recently an assistant coach at Carleton, and I roomed with Paul Schmaedeke at the 1992 Olympic Track and Field Trails!)

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