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LetsRun.com Previews The NCAA XC Season - Wisconsin Loaded With Young Talent... Are They Too Young To Stay On The Podium?

September 22, 2009
Coach Byrne Interview Conducted September 16, 2009

**Wisconsin Badgers**

#4 LRC XC Ranking

To get a first-hand feel for the Wisconsin team, read our exclusive interview with head coach Mick Byrne.

LRC Preseason Ranking: #4 in the country
Why #4: Return NCAA All-American Landon Peacock, Jack Bolas and track All-American Craig Miller and add Reed Connor, Maverick Darling, Drew Shields, and Mohammad Ahmed
Last Year: 4th at NCAAs, NCAA regional champions, Big Ten Champions over Michigan and Minnesota


Badger's Possible Top - 5
* Landon Peacock * Craig Miller * Jack Bolas * Mohammad Ahmed * Reed Connor *


Badger Overview

The Badgers return three of their top-5 from NCAAs in 2008: Landon Peacock (JR, 1st man), Craig Miller (SR, 4th man) and Jack Bolas (JR, 5th man). They also return their 7th man, steeplechaser Ryan Gasper (SR).

With senior Matt Withrow struggling with injuries, Peacock was the leader on the course for Wisco in 2008. He ran a great race to take 2nd at Big-10s and then earned All-American honors by finishing in 21st in Terre Haute.

Along with the four mentioned above, soph Elliot Krause also deserves mention as he is the Badger's 5th returner from the top-25 at Big-10s. Krause was able to finish 25th as a true freshman.

It is clear that the Badgers will need some key new additions to spark another podium finish, and Coach Byrne has an incredible freshman class along with two key redshirt freshmen who truly can be expected to make a difference. Normally young runners in the NCAAs take a while to develop, but these Wisconsin freshmen are not your average recruits. Four out of the six have been in the top-9 at Foot Locker's in high school, another set a junior Pan Am Games record in his 14:12 5000m win, and the least-heralded is a 9:02 high school 3200m runner from Madison.

If the Badger freshmen take a while to develop, Wisconsin fans might have to wait another year before their team again reaches the podium, but in 2010 they should undoubtedly be an incredibly formidable team. In the short term, it looks like Wisconsin will have to rely on a couple of their top true freshmen to bolster their top-5 in 2009.

Key Players

Craig Miller (SR): 14th at Big 10's, 7th at NCAA regionals, 71st at NCAAs in 2008

Coach Byrne on Miller: He's much better holdin back and being patient when he races. And that's something we've talked about and something we're certainly going to be workin on. He doesn't need to be up front stickin his nose in the mix early on in the race. I would certainly say that overall his strength is at another level from last year. There's no reason why a good miler like him - there's a lot of good milers out there who run well in cross country so there's no reason he can't.

Ryan Gasper (redshirt SR): 19th at Big 10's, 42nd at NCAA regionals, 180th at NCAAs in 2008

Landon Peacock (redshirt JR): 2nd at Big 10's, 4th at NCAA regionals, 21st at NCAAs in 2008

Coach Byrne on Peacock: We're actually excited about where he's at. Some of his workouts have gone up to another level over where he was this time last year. We really expect him to be the team leader.

Jack Bolas (redshirt JR): 7th at Big 10's, 77th at NCAAs in 2008

Elliot Krause (SO): 25th at Big Ten XC Champs as a true freshman

Taking a look at the youngsters, in the stable in no particular order are: 

Cross Country: Nike Cross Nationals Reed Connor, a true freshman from Texas who won Nike XC Nationals (right) and was the 2008 Gatorade Boy's National Cross Country Runner Of The Year.

Coach Byrne on Reed: We did run Reed Connor in our first meet unattached and he did look real smooth, very comfortable over 6k. [he won by a ton for such a short race]

Redshirt freshmen Rob Finnerty and Maverick Darling were 9th and 3rd, respectively, in the 2007 Foot Locker Championships. Finnerty also ran a 4:01 mile in 2008 during his senior year.

Coach Byrne on Finnerty and Darling: Maverick Darling is ready to step in. Rob Finnerty - who basically missed the entire freshman year through illness - we need to take him along really slowly and not rush the process. Obviously he's a 4:01 high school miler and has a ton of talent and a lot of training. With him it will be a week to week decision of what we'll do with him.

Mohammad Ahmed might be the best of the bunch as he won the Pan Am 5000m in 14:12 and is a Canadian junior xc runner-up. Badger fans will certainly hope for Ahmed to progress like fellow Canadian and 2-time NCAA XC champion Simon Bairu did during his tenure in Madison.

Coach Byrne on Ahmed: Mohammad Ahmed was at Pan Ams in the middle of August so he had to take some down time after that. He's in the middle of Ramadan fasting right now so we're kind of taking things really slowly with him, just introducing him to some light workouts, but not rushing anything.

Drew Shields - 4th at Foot Lockers and 7th at Nike Nationals in 2008 - is yet another dynamite pick-up. Coach Byrne sees Shields as a guy ready to compete right way.

Perhaps the least heralded guy, 6'3" Alex Brill, will be right at home in his hometown of Madison with his 9:02 3200m high school credentials. Coach Byrne says he's likely to redshirt in 2009.

Cross Country: NCAA Championships The Bottom Line From Madison

Wisconsin can expect another big year from Peacock, but their overall place in the team standings will hinge on key returners Craig Miller and Jack Bolas. Both runners placed in the 70s at NCAAs in 2008. Moving from the 70s to the 30s or 40s (where Withrow and Eagon finished last year) is not a large jump time-wise (think 3-5 seconds per mile), but those 30-40 spots represent a huge jump in performance and maturity.

It is not a wild stretch to imagine two out of the six redshirt or true freshmen performing at a high level at NCAAs this year, so the Badgers have a reasonably good shot at the podium.

There should be no worries about the Big-10 championship crown. Not even including the best freshmen in the conference (by a long-shot), the Badgers return five men who were top-25 in last year's championships.

And as we said before, look out for the Badgers in 2010 with Peacock, Bolas and the six young horses with even more training and experience under their belts.

Why We Pick Wisconsin To Come Through For The Podium In 2009

We are confident Wisconsin is going to be really formidable in 2009 for a few reasons.

#1: Schedule. The Badgers will race at Iona, Wisconsin adidas Invitational, Terre Haute Pre-NCAAs, Big Tens and Regionals before the NCAA meet. It's a tough schedule but Mick Byrne is very experienced and will get every guy on his team the right race experience. In other words, you won't see Landon Peacock and the other veteran Badgers running all-out until much later in the season, even if it means Wisco might get beat up in the team scoring early in the season. The Badgers will be knocking up against tough teams all year so they'll be ready for the big meet on November 23. Also, we think running at home is huge. Avoiding that extra road trip is key for resting the team.

#2: The Badgers finished 4th at NCAAs as a team in 2008, an improvement on their 5th-place finish in 2007. Their key losses are Matt Withrow (32nd at NCAAs last year, 3rd man), Christian Wagner (78th, 6th man) and Stuart Eagon (28th, 2nd man).

Losing those three key men is significant, but nobody is better at landing a cross-country team on the podium at the end of the year than Mick Byrne. In his final five years at Iona, Byrne led the team to four podium finishes, including a runner-up in 2007. Byrne didn't leave the closet empty when he departed, as Ricardo Santos was able to lead the Gaels to a second consecutive runner-up performance in 2008. Why would the trend of podium finishes change? Answer: it won't because Byrne is a smart coach and a great recruiter.

#3: An experienced, passionate coach. Two quotes from our interview with Byrne sum up why his teams win. First quote:

I'm passionate about winning. We always believed at Iona that we could win the national championships. It was my dream, it was my passion, I went to work every day believin that. And it's the same here!

But you can't just be passionate about winning. Spending a quarter century coaching teaches a lot of lessons. Leading us to the second quote.

I think we're very much an aerobic type of program. I'm a big believer that aerobic strength builds speed... And I'm a big believer in - and people look at our program and go "why are you doing progression runs in the summer?" - well a big part of my philosophy is "we start early". We don't necessarily go fast but we start early and we progress into everything we do whether it's a hill session, whether it's a tempo run or track stuff. We include a lot of low-key track stuff even during the fall, after we finish our runs on the field. We do stuff like 150s, 200s, 300s. We don't call 'em workouts, it's just a part of what we do...

I've found that over the years maybe coaches, we'd come in and say "Ok it's September we've gotta start doin tempo, rhythm runs, whatever you want to call them, threshold workouts." And the kids aren't ready for it because we're starting too fast and they crash halfway through the plan period. So we really believe in startin whatever we're dealin with, doin it over a longer period.

#4: Talent. Talent wins at the NCAA level. The Badgers have too much talent on their team and too much coaching talent not to make a run. Go ahead and look around and find five NCAA teams with more cross country talent than the Badgers. It's not easy. Oregon and Oklahoma State are clearly more talented at least this year basing it partly on experience (remember much of Wisconsin's primo talent is very young and raw), then Stanford, NAU, Auburn and Alabama, those teams have similar talent to Wisconsin but it's hard to say any of those teams have clearly more talent.

Wisconsins Badger October 3rd Wisconsin adidas Invitational Brings New Excitement To XC Season

Wisconsin built a new cross country course adjacent to their golf course named the Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course. Coach Byrne has gone on record saying he thinks it's the best cross country course in the nation, telling us "We're certainly putting in a bid for regionals and nationals down the road. That's why the course was built and that's the intention." October 3rd will be the "unveiling" of the course for a full meet at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational. This meet isn't huge but it's top-shelf quality. The teams attending are: Arkansas, Auburn, BYU, Duke, Georgetown, Illinois, Iowa, Lamar, Marquette, Michigan, Nebraska, Syracuse, Texas A&M, UW-Lacrosse and Wisconsin. There are about seven of the nation's top-25 teams in this relatively small but elite field. These types of meets are run to help NCAA bubble teams earn points by beating teams from other regions.

If you've never been to Madison, everyone we know who has been there says it's a really fun place to be. So plan a trip on October 3rd and you can see a really great cross country meet and catch a beer after the race while watching the Badger game in one of the local bars. You might get to meet Bucky The Badger, the second-best mascot in the world next to Berlino.



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