Updated: Jan 13
Earlier in the rankings, I talked about how this year was a big one for Coach Ihmels at Boise State. The Broncos reached some lofty heights last year, but 2019 is about proving a team’s consistency. After losing the heart of their lineup, turning this year’s team into a national qualifier would be a huge achievement and would validate the idea that Boise State is building a legitimate program.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, "What on Earth does this have to do with Michigan?"
Last year, Michigan was looking at a similar situation as Boise State is this year. The Wolverines were losing studs. Not just any studs, but bonafide low-sticks. Seniors Flanagan, Baumgarten, and Mora graduated - leaving a massive hole in Coach Kevin Sullivan’s lineup. Expectations were low for a young team without any legitimate low-scoring stars. In order to succeed, Michigan needed their depth to shine through and for a few guys to take some big steps forward.
Luckily for Big Blue, that is exactly what happened.
In a rebuilding year, Michigan showed that they were still a team to be reckoned with. This year, though, the Wolverines won’t be taking anyone by surprise. Much like Ole Miss, this is a team that relied heavily on underclassmen last year, so their 2019 lineup will still be young, but seasoned with the experience from the fall of 2018.
Coming off a rebuild season, this is a critical year for Michigan as they look to capitalize on last year's momentum. Another step forward could land the Wolverines within the top 10 this year.
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2018, for Michigan, began in earnest at the Nuttycombe Invitational against a host of nationally ranked teams. While it wasn’t a spectacular performance for the Wolverines it was a solid-enough start. Jacob Lee led the way with a 58th place finish while teammate John Aho was right behind him in 61st. Crossing the line after their top duo was a clump of Michigan runners who finished between 89th and 101st. Isaac Harding, Ben Hill, Jordan Hewitt, and John Tatter provided the Wolverines with a deep pack that would only get better as the season went on. Yet, even without anyone in the top 50, Michigan's impressive depth was able to pull out a 13th place finish in a loaded field which put them ahead of teams like Indiana, Oklahoma State, NC State, and Iona.
Two weeks later, the Wolverines headed back to Wisconsin to run in the Cardinal race at Pre-Nationals against yet another top-class field. Just like at Nuttycombe, no one finished within the top 50 and in a field that was top-heavy, Michigan's depth had less of an impact. Aho led the team in 53rd place while Harding finished nine spots back. Once again, the Wolverine pack carried the bulk of the team's scoring. Hewitt, Lee, Tatter, Hill, and Branch took up five spots between 74th and 85th place, showing that they at least had a stable back half.
A few weeks later, it was a similar story at the BIG 10 Championships. In a heated battle for 3rd, Michigan finished 4th, one point behind a very talented Indiana team and narrowly ahed of an underrated Michigan State squad. However, this time, the team had a new front-runner in Jordy Hewitt, who finished 13th overall while the rest of the top five earned top 30 finishes.
At this point, the strengths and weaknesses of this lineup became clear. For the most part, Michigan was consistent and never had to worry about their overall team score getting out of control thanks to the numerous options that had throughout their varsity seven. However, if the pack didn’t move up enough, then they wouldn't have any low-sticks to advance them past other top-tier programs. To qualify for Nationals, they needed someone to step up.
Clearly, Big Blue heard our message.
At the Great Lakes Regional Championships, Aho and Harding broke out of the pack and gave their team the low-sticks that they had been looking for all season. With the top duo finishing 10th and 11th overall, Tatter, Hewitt, and Hill crossed the line in 20th, 33rd, and 35th, respectively. After losing to Purdue by over 20 points two weeks earlier, Michigan beat out the Boilermakers to secure a 3rd place finish and (eventually) a spot to Nationals.
Back in Madison, the Wolverines put together yet another solid performance. However, the biggest story for Michigan was John Aho’s stunning breakout race. The sophomore turned in the race of his life to earn All-American honors and finish 35th in the country. Freshman John Tatter also turned in a solid performance, crossing the line in 79th place. The rest of the pack finished between 132nd and 213th, but because of Aho’s low score, they still ended the day with a respectable 19th place finish in the team standings.
With six of their seven men returning (Tatter transferred to UNC) and additional depth on the way, Michigan is only going to improve on their national meet performance from last year.
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When you look at Michigan's collective performances from last fall and look at their core of returners, it's hard to dislike this team. Aho has shown that, on the right day, he can be a legitimate superstar low-stick. Other guys like Harding and Hewitt have also shown flashes of brilliance in the postseason. If they can replicate those performances for the entirety of 2019, then the Wolverines will have two very capable supporting scorers behind Aho.
With guys like Ben Hill and Jacob Lee also in the latter half of the lineup, it may be fair to suggest that Michigan is one of the deepest programs in the country this year.
Of course, the mass number of returners isn't the only reason why Michigan is expected to succeed this year. Adding to Coach Sullivan’s depth will be a few runners who weren’t featured in the cross country lineup. That includes Baylor transfer Devin Meyrer ran 14:00 and 29:17 this past spring and was the clear leader for the Bears during his time in the BIG 12. Other guys like Tate Lewis and Joost Plaetinck also ran regional qualifying times in the steeplechase this past spring, giving Michigan even more depth than before.
Also joining the team is one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country and Ryan Robinson from Michigan State. The former Spartan had to sit out last year due to NCAA in-conference transfer rules, but Robinson was a solid scorer for his team back in 2016 as he finished 13th at the Great Lakes Regional Championships.
But it's not just Myrer and Robinson who will be threats to take away varsity spots on this Michigan roster. An incoming freshman class, which is one of the best in the nation, looks ready to contribute right away.
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Michigan native Nick Foster was one of the top recruits in the country this past year after a great cross country season which saw him finish 13th at Nike Cross Nationals. His track season, however, was even more impressive. The Brooks PR invitational mile champion ran PR's of 1:51, 4:03, and 8:52 this past spring.
Behind him are other top recruits James Gedris and Thomas Shilgalis. The Illinois bred Shilgalis has run well on the grass, but it is his 4:07 1600 meter result that catches the eye. Gedris, on the other hand, looks to be a long-distance stud. With PR's of 9:00 and 14:29 (5k), he has a perfect profile for a star cross country runner. These three - along with the other prominent recruits headed to Ann Arbor - will provide Michigan with a boost this fall and for years to come.
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For all the depth that the Wolverines have, it is important that a few guys separate themselves from the rest of the pack. While a deep squad is a great luxury to have, none of it matters if the top five isn’t finishing high enough. Michigan will need to see some big improvements from their returners and newcomers in order to take the next step in their development cycle. A top 10 finish is on the table for this still very young team, but they will need Aho to prove that his National performance wasn’t just fluke. Additionally, they will need a to have some guys supporting Aho up-front as a prospective All-Americans.
Moreover, the pack will need to move up a bit from where it was last year. An improved performance from the pack will give the Wolverines more of a cushion and margin of error if their top guys don’t run as well.
While this team could certainly break into the top 10 if everything goes well, this is a group that should be a steady performer each and every week. With the squad they have, every race should be fairly consistent. The highs might not be as high as they want, but their lows will be much better than most. Either way, this is a team that should take a big step forward this year and if all goes well, they could have even brighter future in 2020.