On the heels of the Gopher men's cross country team's 8th place finish at the NCAA Division I Championships, DtB talked to head coach Steve Plasencia (pictured) to have him offer his insights on what was arguably the best Gopher harrier squad in nearly 40 years. The Gopher men were Big Ten runners-up and Midwest Regional runners-up before cracking the NCAA top-10 for the first time since 1969.
DtB: How surprised were you by the team's finish at NCAAs. Did you know that kind of performance was in them and just waiting to come out?
Plasencia: As the season progressed I suspected that we were being somewhat overlooked in the national rankings. When my assistant, Brad Wick, and I sat down to go over race results, there was evidence to suggest that if we ran as we had been to that point in the season we had a real possibility to be a top ten team. I do not think we did anything at the national meet that had not been shown before that day.
DtB: This year's success comes after last year's end-of-the-year disappointment. Were there things learned last year that made this year's success more possible?
Plasencia: Good question. Not making the national meet for the first time in ten years in 2006, caused a lot of soul searching by both the athletes and the coaches. Preparation went well this year. I think it also should be noted that three of our top five at the, Regional and National meet this year were not running for our varsity last year. The new guys, Hassan, Forrest and Mike McFarland were very instrumental in anything we accomplished.
DtB: It looks like the team was very patient at NCAAs this year, coming through the field during the course of the race. Was that a new strategy or just one that was particularly well executed this year?
Plasencia: It was not a particular new strategy. The strategy that we had was different for different groups within the top seven that raced. They had to have a little faith that the position they were in at 3k was not necessarily where they would finish. The course was in hard condition and made making up places easier than if it was muddy. The question is whether, will you have the strength to move up when you want to. Last Monday those that went out conservatively did have the strength to move up as the race progressed.
DtB: Despite the fine finish, is there any sense of "what might have been," if Mike Torchia had remained healthy?
Plasencia: Mike and Matt Barrett (22nd at Griak) both had injuries that they could not comeback from in a meaningful way during the short cross country season. We look forward to having them back healthy this spring and then again next fall. I fell that it is pointless to deal in “could of, should of, would have” type speculation. Our team is as good as it is, or is not, at any point in time.
DtB: Do you think the NCAA finish this year will change the "yardstick" for the guys on the team -- that is, having them thinking more confidently about finishing even higher in the future?
Plasencia: I would hope, and expect that the guys on the squad will want to continue to have strong teams. How our finish this year changes what future groups expect or how they will perform, I can’t tell.
DtB: Is there anything I haven't asked about that you think is important for readers to know about the 2007 Gophers?
When we had injuries our plans to red-shirt Justin Grunewald changed. It was hard because I knew he really wanted to red-shirt and come back next year when he would have a lighter academic year. When I reluctantly approached him to change plans, he stepped forward to help the team without hesitation. I felt like that was representative of how these guys approached things this year.
Photo courtesy of the U of M.