While hosting Saturday’s Pre-National Invitational, Badgers cross country teams keep eyes on end of season

October 11, 2018

University of Wisconsin cross country coaches faithfully adhere to the mantra that the season for their teams is a build-up to the Big Ten Conference championships and what comes beyond.

To that end, they have to this point passed on competing at the Pre-National Invitational that annually shows up as a featured event on the national schedule about a month before the NCAA Championship.

Part of being a good host is being present, however. So the Badgers’ top-10-ranked men’s and women’s teams are making an exception on Saturday when the pre-national meet takes place at the Zimmer Championship Course, also the site of the Nov. 17 main event.

Just don’t think the Badgers’ presence means they’re diverting their eyes from the long-term goals that await in championship season.

“Every program is looking at the year. Nobody’s looking at winning the pre-national meet,” women’s cross country coach Jill Miller said. “That’s not the focus here this weekend. It’s about learning, growing, staying true to whatever your program is doing — for us, that’s training right now.

“Do a lot of teams put stock in the results? Absolutely. Do we? Not as much. For us, it’s the Big Ten meet and beyond.”

Seventy-one teams in each gender are due to compete in a series of races starting at 10 a.m. Saturday. Because of the high volume of entries, each gender has two main races, with teams split up by a committee, and a third for additional runners from those teams.

It’s all a little bit much for Mick Byrne, the Badgers’ director of cross country and track and field and a critic of the points system that chooses the 13 at-large teams for the NCAA Championship.

“There’s probably not another sport in the NCAA where, midseason like this, you will get ... 18, 19 teams in the top 30 for one event,” Byrne said. “That’s crazy. Let’s call it what it really is: Everyone’s here for one reason. It’s not to look at the course. They’re coming here to score points. That’s our system.”

Led by No. 1 Northern Arizona, the top five men’s teams in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association rankings are scheduled to compete Saturday.

The third-ranked Badgers are looking to solidify the fifth spot in the lineup behind Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational winner Morgan McDonald, Oliver Hoare, Olin Hacker and Benjamin Eidenschink.

“We’ve got a lot of young kids fighting for those spots, not only for the NCAA regional team, national team,” Byrne said. “Let’s face it: You look at the results from Nuttycombe on the men’s side, we’ve got to be better at No. 5, we’ve got to be better at No. 6. And there’s guys out there on Saturday going to be fighting for that spot. And that’s what makes a team good, and we’re excited about that part of the race on Saturday.”

The women’s team, ranked eighth nationally, is in a similar position. Alicia Monson won her second race of the season at the Nuttycombe meet on Sept. 28, where the Badgers finished sixth as a team.

Depth also is the focus for Miller’s team beyond Monson, Amy Davis, Shaelyn Sorensen and Alissa Niggemann.

“The freshmen will take time to develop, to grow,” she said. “We don’t want to put that pressure on them to make such a huge leap up. But I like where we are. I like what I’m seeing in the training, certainly with those top four and then the freshmen getting thrown into the mix and really stepping up and understanding what it takes to compete at this level.”

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