Indiana’s men’s cross country team expected to be underestimated. The Hoosiers built their entire race strategy at Sunday’s Big Ten Championship meet on Purdue’s campus in West Lafayette around the likelihood that they would be forgotten about.
They were right, and it worked.
The Hoosiers placed four of their five scoring racers in the top 10 to take first in the meet with 51 points — low score wins in cross country — and stunned race favorites Michigan and Wisconsin to win their first Big Ten men’s cross country title since 1980. The Hoosiers had finished second four times in the meet since 2000 including in 2010 and 2011 but hadn’t broken through.
IU coach Ron Helmer’s perception that the Hoosiers would not be viewed as a threat had its origins in the Adidas Invitational on Oct. 19 in Madison, Wis., when the Hoosiers finished a disappointing 17th while Wisconsin was fourth and Michigan was ninth. The Hoosiers had weakened their own team in that meet by sending two of their best runners to the Pre-National Invitational in Terre Haute where the NCAA championships will be held on Nov. 23, but the runners they did send to Wisconsin didn’t have a particularly good meet by their own standards.
Helmer figured the Hoosiers could use all of that to their tactical advantage.
“I guessed right in terms of how the race was going to unfold,” Helmer said “Wisconsin was the team with the target on their back. Michigan, we felt like Michigan would focus on them and aggressively try to break them. Our plan was to put ourselves comfortably in the right position. Watch what Michigan doing and play off of that, then be the best team on the course last 1,000 meters. We sat off the pace a little. Not a lot, just a little. And when people started getting in trouble, we made a move.”
Helmer’s young squad stuck with the game plan, kept a steady pace unaffected by all the moving and shaking and stayed close together. Redshirt freshman Jason Crist led the group with a fifth-place finish and a time of 24 minutes, 24.9 seconds on the 8,000-meter course. Sophomore Rorey Hunter (24:34.7) finished seventh followed closely by redshirt freshman Carl Smith (24:34.9) at eighth and sophomore Matthew Schwartzer (24:36.2) at 10th. Junior Evan Esselink (24:52.0) came in 21st to give the Hoosiers their fifth scorer to close it out.
Michigan’s strategy played into their hands just as Indiana had hoped. The Wolverines pushed the pace and wore themselves and Wisconsin out. Wisconsin freshman Malachy Schrobilgen won the individual race with a time of 24:16.9, but the Badgers didn’t place anyone else in the top 10. The Wolverines took three of the four spots between the 9-12 places to finish in front of Wisconsin’s main pack, scoring 66 points to the Badgers’ 71 to take second, but Indiana snuck in front of them.
“We were very relaxed and comfortable early,” Helmer said. “Michigan was particularly aggressive. They were at the front of the pack, forcing the pace a little bit. It worked for them, because they wanted to make sure Wisconsin knew they were there. They wanted to get Wisconsin to break, which they eventually did. But they didn’t count on us being able to stay close enough like we did.”
It was a huge accomplishment for the young Hoosiers, who would’ve appeared to be in rebuilding mode after losing one of the best distance-running groups in school history over the last two seasons, including 2012 Big Ten cross country individual champion Zachary Mayhew and 2012 1,500-meter NCAA champion Andy Bayer. Schwartzer, who finished 25th last season, was the only runner in this year’s top five who scored for the Hoosiers last season.
“They’re good kids, they train well, they’re smart and they listen,” Helmer said. “They’re confident enough in themselves enough to make a race plan and stick with it and not get bothered by the anxiety and stress of the race. … I don’t know that I’ve ever had a whole team execute a race plan like that.”
The title was also a major victory for Helmer, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma — a cancer of the plasma cells — in March. He is in remission after stem cell transplant surgery in July and has maintained control of Indiana’s overall track-and-field program throughout the process.
“It means a lot,” Helmer said. “For one thing because you go through something like that and you really appreciate life more. But it just reinforced the idea that you just take it one day at a time and within your training you take it one day at a time and you have to be resilient and know that it’s not the end of the world when things go wrong. … I’m thankful for another opportunity see them put in the practice what I was kind of forced to focus on the last five or six months. On a bunch of levels it means a whole lot,”