Cross country

After down years, Wisconsin men looking to make their mark on program history at home

Lead by Australian standouts Morgan McDonald (815) and Olli Hoare (813), Wisconsin is seeking a podium spot and potentially more on Saturday.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger and Cameron Lane-Flehinger

It’s all been leading up to this.

From the moment it was announced in April 2017 that Madison would host the NCAA Division 1 Cross Country National Championships.

From the moment the decision was made to redshirt senior Morgan McDonald so that his final race would come with a shot at a national championship on his come course.

It’s all been leading up to this.

Now the Badgers have one shot to prove that all their planning, including just the second missed appearance at nationals in 40 years last season, has been worth it.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s here,” Director of Cross Country and Track and Field Mick Byrne said. “But here we are, and we’re excited to be competing at the national championships at home. I think every school out there would like to host the national championships.”

Luckily for Byrne and the Badgers, the team’s performances on the course have been rounding into form just when they’re needed most.

Wisconsin entered the year with a talented roster but plenty of question marks after failing to qualify for nationals in two of the last three years.

Those questions were answered emphatically at the Nuttycombe Invitational, where McDonald captured an impressive victory and the Badgers took down podium contenders Portland and Iowa State, finishing second only to defending national champions Northern Arizona.

It was a redemptive moment for the team and many of its members after an “unacceptable” 25th-place finish at the same meet a year ago.

McDonald and juniors Olli Hoare, Olin Hacker and Ben Eidenschink all finished in the top 35 at Nuttycombe, but the Badgers’ potential weakness came at the fifth spot. Senior Tyson Miehe finished 75th in that race, 26 seconds behind Eidenschink.

In the races since, nearly every runner on the roster outside of that top four has provided a performance that bodes well for Wisconsin’s chances at nationals.

At the Big Ten championships, Miehe finished 12th, ahead of Hacker and six seconds closer to Eidenschink. Freshman Derrick Peters was just behind Hacker as the Badgers put six runners in the top 20.

“The support staff is pretty good. Tyson Miehe had a good run at the Big Tens; Ben Eidenschink had a great run. We had a couple of freshmen: Derrick Peters stepped up at Big Tens with an incredible run for us,” Byrne said.

At the Great Lakes regional, freshman Shuaib Aljabaly finished alongside Eidenschink in his first career 10-kilometer race, impressing the head coach.

“Shuaib was unbelievable,” Byrne said. “A true freshman just coming out of high school, he went through 5k on Saturday faster than he ran 5k this time last year, and then he had another 5k to go, obviously. So the improvement of some of those young kids is remarkable.”

With Northern Arizona looking dominant in pursuit of a third straight title and No. 2 BYU also running well, the Badgers will be hard-pressed to contend for the top spot on the podium this year. But Byrne thinks this year’s team, on a good day, compares favorably with his 2011 team that captured the program’s last national team title and the 2012 squad that finished runner-up a year later.

“I think we’re right up there [with the 2011 and 2012 teams]. Obviously some things have to go right and in our favor on Saturday, but that’s the great thing about this national meet, it’s so unpredictable,” Byrne said. “We run the meet for a reason, to crown a national champion, and no one has a divine right to that trophy. We’re going to get out there and compete for that.”

Last year, Northern Arizona’s duo of Matthew Baxter and Tyler Day took the race out hard from the gun and blew the field apart in the early kilometers. While many observers expect the Lumberjacks to take a similar approach this time around, the Badgers are ready for anything the field might throw at them.

“We’re prepared for anything. You have to consider all scenarios, and if they go out hard, we’re ready for that,” Byrne said. “That’s the great thing about Morgan McDonald, Olli [Hoare], Olin Hacker; they’re able to race. It doesn’t matter what way the race goes; they’re ready for that.”

After a couple down years, Wisconsin has exceeded expectations all season with the prospect of a national championships on its home course looming. With the race finally here, all that remains is for the Badgers to see if they can add an indelible emotional moment to the program’s already storied history.

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