Monday, November 16, 2009

Gopher Harriers Headed Back to NCAAs

Once again, a full complement of Gopher harriers will race at the NCAA Championships.

On Saturday, the #17-ranked University of Minnesota women's team earned an automatic spot on the NCAA starting line in Terre Haute, Indiana thanks to an emphatic 60 to 86 victory over Illinois at the Midwest Regional meet in Springfield, Missouri.

On Sunday night, the Gopher men earned an at-large invitation to nationals after finishing fourth in the Midwest. The men will make their 12th trip to NCAAs in the last 14 years. The women will attend "the big dance" for the 10th time in 13 years.

In addition, Golden Gopher junior Hassan Mead defended his Midwest Regional title running 30:22 for the 10K course.

Women Reaching Their Peak? ... The Gopher women won their third-straight Midwest Regional crown by running their best team race of the season. Megan Duwell led the squad with a runner-up finish to Illinois' Angela Bizzarri.

Behind Duwell, the Gophers put five runners in the top-20 -- Amy Laskowske was 9th, Heather Dorniden was 14th, Stephanie Price was 19th, and Kayla Wagner was 20th. No other team put four runners in the top-20.

"I didn't think we ran very well at the Big Ten meet in terms of being a pack," Gopher coach Gary Wilson told media after Regionals, "and we kind of faded at the end and I take blame for that."

"But today they all came together and did a great job." he said. "We had seven of the top 25. It was a great win for us. We just hadn't put it together all year, so today they did. Everyone was a fighter today and had a great group energy."

Nikki Swenson finished 21st for Minnesota; Elizabeth Yetzer was 25th.

The strong race has Wilson and his squad eager for the NCAA Championships and the possibility of improving upon the program's best-ever 9th-place finish there.

"I thought at the beginning of the year we could be a top-eight team," Wilson revealed, "which would be our best finish ever, and now we're ranked 17th and maybe we can be, we still have a shot at that."

"The kids' goal was to be in the top eight, but there are awfully good teams around up and down the line," he continued. "They key at the big dance is to just get in, keep your composure and not try to be a hero. Just run and see what happens."

Duwell is confident the team focus on the late-season will reap dividends at NCAAs.

"This season we really wanted to improve as the year went on and peak at the right time," the senior all-American said. "This win will give us a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum going into nationals."

A Seat at the Table ... After finishing 4th at the Midwest Regional on Saturday, the Gopher men were left to celebrate Hassan Mead's title defense and wait impatiently until Sunday night to learn whether they'd make the NCAA championships as an at-large selection.

The #29-ranked Gophers hoped their Midwest finish behind #2 Oklahoma State, #18 Oklahoma, and #27 Iowa State would be result enough to put them in the 31-team NCAA field and extend their season one more week.

The Gophers scored 125 points at the meet, trailing Oklahoma State's 50, Oklahoma's 71, and Iowa State's 109.

Scoring behind Mead were Matt Barrett who finished 15th overall, Ben Blankenship who was 28th, Pieter Gagnon 38th, and Mike McFarland 51st . Derek Storkel finished 66th and Paul Hilsen was 117th.

"We are certainly a bubble team. All we can do is wait and hope," Gopher coach Steve Plasencia offered post meet.

When the NCAA field was announced on Sunday evening, however, Minnesota was among the 13 at-large selections for the meet, where the team finished 15th last year and eighth in 2007.

Find complete Midwest Regional results HERE (women) and HERE (men.)

Find complete NCAA Championship field information HERE.

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