While the weather outside certainly doesn't indicate it, cross country season is right around the corner. University of Minnesota head men's track and cross country coach Steve Plasencia is already preparing for the annual pre-season camp for XC coming up in August.
He's also making recruiting calls, arranging for meets in Europe for athletes like Ben Blankenship , and generally getting ready for the year ahead. DtB took the opportunity to chat with Plasencia a bit about the past season and what's ahead for the upcoming Olympic year. While he won't be in the lineup for the Gopher cross country team as he's used up his eligibilty there, Blankenship will be running his final track season for the Gophers in 2012.
Plasencia calls Ben the "cream of the crop in the mile in the Big Ten." While there had been talk of possibly "red shirting" Ben in cross country last year so he'd have a full year of eligibility for both cross country and track this year, Hassan Mead's collapsed lung changed that. With Mead out, the young team needed a leader and Blankenship stepped into that role. Both Blankenship and the team finished third in the Big Ten meet and the team qualified for NCAAs with a third place finish in the NCAA Regional Meet.
"(Before the) indoor track (season) Ben and I had a conversation," said Plasencia. "He was thinking that he'd like to move on. But he said he would come back for an indoor and outdoor."
So, instead of finishing up in 2011, the decision was made to redshirt the year in track and use his remaining eligibilty for next year. This didn't mean that Blankenship was just going to be idle until early 2012 though. Plasencia was able to get Ben a spot in the mile race at the Prefontaine meet in Eugene and Ben's performance there, along with a win in the 1,500(3:39:49) at the Payton Jordan Classic at Stanford in May, boosted Blankenship's "stock" as not only a Big Ten standout, but a candidate for national honors.
Unfortunately for Blankenship, the heat set up at the USATF championships, also at Hayward Field in Eugene, stuck Ben in a loaded heat with a slow pace. It came down to a kick and though Ben ran 1:36 for his last 700 and 54.1 for the last quarter, he didn't make the final, said Plasencia. Despite that setback, it has been a successful season for Blankenship and the lessons learned from nationals may help him avoid a similar fate in the Olympic year.
Mead had similar issues in the NCAA track regionals, said Plasencia, as the West Region was loaded with talent, compared to the East, and the qualifying races came down to a kick, not Mead's strength, even though he was able to finish well it was not well enough to get him a ticket to NCAAs. In retrospect, Plasencia said, Mead might have been better off taking the pace early and gambling that he wouldn't use too much energy, but burn off enough of the competition so that it wasn't decided by a sprint.
Still Mead's comeback year from first an Achilles injury from the 2010 track season, then the collapsed lung was a success. Having part of his lung taken out and having been away from the sport for a year, Mead still won a Big Ten title(10K) and ran 13:45 for 5K. "Hasan is a very grounded individual," said Plasencia. His family and things outside of the sport keep him that way and probably were a great help in getting Mead through the trials of the injury and health setbacks, Plasencia said.
Both Mead and Blankenship have caught the attention of people in the sport and will have the option to continue on their running careers with significant support, said Plasencia. But they have one more track season together, and Mead will lead this year's cross country team. "Hassan had the chance to go away and train at altitude, but he chose to stay in the city," Plasencia said. "Right now he's putting in some good background work. While nothing is guaranteed, I'm optimistic about next season."
More on the team goals in Part II on Friday.