Lone Survivor

At last year’s D3 XC National Championships, it was only fitting that the men of North Central were able to secure the team title (and a three-peat) in dominating fashion in Winnecone, Wisconsin. The last time Nationals were held in Winnecone was 2015, the year before NCC would begin their three-peat journey.

Back then, three young freshmen were in NCC’s scoring five. Their names were Al Baldondo, Zach Hird, and Dhruvil Patel. It was a tough day for the Cardinals, seeing a rare non-podium finish as they took 5th that year. After that race, those freshmen were determined to improve upon that performance, and they certainly did just that.

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Three years later, six seniors stepped on the line in Winnecone once again and ran their hearts out to dominate the field and avenge that disappointment from 2015. Dhruvil Patel took the individual win, Al Baldonado was right behind him in 2nd place, and Zach Hird finished strong in 33rd. Those performances would secure All-American honors for each of them. The three other seniors also ran very well with Chris Buechner taking 8th, Nolan McKenna in 68th, and Matt Norvell in 88th.

That senior class undoubtedly proved that their efforts to rebound from that 2015 performance were not in vain, taking three dominating titles in a row and having it all come together with six members from their class working in unison in one last cross country race. It sounds like a storybook ending after a long, validating journey.

Of course, that’s only six guys: seven are supposed toe the line at Nationals. This leaves us with one name whom I have yet to mention.

That name is Matt Osmulski.

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There is a caveat about North Central’s great success over the last three years: Osmulski is their only returner from the 2018 national meet. That is a big blow after losing such an impactful class who added a good deal to the history and accolades of the program. However, like I’ve said before: you can never count out North Central. Osmulski’s experience and track record, his teammates, and the guidance of the legendary Al Carius will all contribute to seeing North Central in a great position yet again this fall.

As a junior, Osmulski played an integral part in the Cardinals’ success this past year, as he performed very well in the latter half of the season. He finished 2nd at both UW-Oshkosh and the CCIW conference meet before placing 9th at the regional meet. The culmination of his season resulted in an 11th place finish at Nationals as NCC’s #4 scorer.

In addition to his performances on the grass, he’s also brought it on the track as well. Showing off his long-range abilities, he qualified for NCAA's in the 10k over the last two spring track seasons, along with a 5k indoor qualifier this past winter.

Seeing Osmulski’s performances at many big-meet invitationals last fall on the grass, he has consistently shown that he’s ready to run with the best (which, most of the time, was with his own teammates).

Coming into this year, Osmulski returns as the fourth best finisher from last year’s national meet and sits among some of the top picks in the running for the individual national title. That being said, one man alone doesn’t make a team. Osmulski has a slew of guys behind him who haven’t had that same national experience yet, but will have to step up and fill the roles of the scoring roster.

Gabe Pommier is a returner to keep an eye on as he held his own throughout last fall. He won the UW-Oshkosh Kollege Town Sports Invitational open race and the Midwest Intercollegiate Invitational, showing a good edge for competing. He even got the chance to run at CCIW with the top guys, finishing 7th overall and #6 for the Cardinals. He continued that success into indoor track, qualifying for Indoor Nationals in the mile.

Others who could make an impact as well are Thomas Rohr, Bjorn Shroda, and Alex Makrounis. These men have all had decent cross seasons in years past, and have knocked down the 15 minute 5k barrier during the track season. If these rising talents (and maybe some others, too) can work near Pommier, they’ll certainly help their star low-stick by bringing depth and scoring support to the middle and backend portion of NCC's lineup.

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It will not only be interesting to see Osmulski compete as a low-stick this year, but also as the clear, veteran leader that this team now needs. Over the past few years, he has had a convoy of men to run behind (and with) in almost all of his races. Now, holding his sole-returner status, he is likely to be the only guy with the red and white stripes up front...well, at least in 2019.

Of course, if some of the aforementioned Cardinals (or even some surprises) get closer up to Osmulski and make some big jumps, it could go a long way in the postseason.

Even so, this team is now transitioning into a new era where Patel is no longer the marquee name to rally around. More so, it's an era where experience and consistent top-tier scoring is no longer a given (although it is still an expectation). As Osmulski enters his final year with the team, he'll be tabbed as the lone survivor of the three-peat dynasty responsible for bridging the past with the future. His significance goes beyond just scoring.

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The North Central locker room will have a much different look than in years past. Having one returner is not something they’re used to, but their degree of success says that they’ll be just fine. The numerous up-and-coming talents will form the foundation of their scoring roster, which all starts with senior Matt Osmulski as the building block.

There’s a lot for the Cardinals to prove, but under the leadership of Al Carius and scoring potency of Osmulski, they can still turn some heads in the postseason just a few months from now.