NCAA XC Weekend Recap: Grant Fisher Is Running, Ben Saarel Is Not (For Now), And What’s Wrong With The Wisconsin Men?

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By LetsRun.com
November 3, 2015

Last weekend was conference weekend in NCAA cross-country, which means there are 62 races (31 men’s, 31 women’s) — all of which matter — to analyze. It would take us from now to NCAAs on November 21 to break down the full implications of every single race this weekend, so we won’t do that. Instead, we’ve taken a look at eight interesting story lines from the weekend’s action, from Colorado’s continued dominance of the men’s PAC-12 to Wisconsin’s shocking eighth-place men’s finish at Big 10s.

Below, we’ve listed the winners of the Power Five conferences with links to the results, read on for our analysis of the weekend’s action.

ACCs (Tallahassee, Fla.)
Men’s team: Syracuse (46 points)
Men’s individual: Thomas Curtin, Virginia Tech (23:23)
Women’s team: Virginia (71 points)
Women’s individual: Molly Seidel, Notre Dame (19:36)

Big 12s (Stillwater, Okla.)
Men’s team: Oklahoma State (28 points)
Men’s individual: Vegard Olstad, Oklahoma State (23:58)
Women’s team: Oklahoma State (34 points)
Women’s individual: Perez Rotich, Iowa State (20:47)

Big 10s (Chicago, Ill.)
Men’s team: Michigan (63 points)
Men’s individual: Matt McClintock, Purdue (23:12)
Women’s team: Penn State (53 points)
Women’s individual: Erin Finn (19:44)

Pac-12s (Colfax, Wash.)
Men’s team: Colorado (46 points)
Men’s individual: Edward Cheserek, Oregon (23:06)
Women’s team: Colorado (45 points)
Women’s individual: Aisling Cuffe, Stanford (19:53)

SECs (College Station, Tex.)
Men’s team: Arkansas (25 points)
Men’s individual: Antibahs Kosgei, Alabama (23:24)
Women’s team: Arkansas (38 points)
Women’s individual: Dominique Scott, Arkansas (19:23)

All NCAA conference results

1. Colorado sweeps Pac-12s — and the redshirt remains on Ben Saarel (for now)

The CU men and women swept the titles at Pac-12s on Friday (photo courtesy Pac-12 Neworks)

The CU men and women swept the titles at Pac-12s on Friday (photo courtesy Pac-12 Networks)

The No. 1 Colorado men continued their dominance of the Pac-12 conference on Friday in Colfax, Wash., winning their fifth consecutive title over Stanford, 46-57; they have now won that meet every year since joining the conference in 2011. And for the second time, they were joined on the podium by their female counterparts as the No. 3 CU women edged Oregon, 45-51, in the women’s race.

The result was an encouraging one for the Buffalo men. Speaking to LetsRun on Monday, head coach Mark Wetmore awarded his team a grade of A-, noting that “it was really hard the whole way, it was fast the whole way. We were up in it. At this point in our preparation, we may be not totally prepared for that hard an effort the whole way.”

As he has all year, senior Pierce Murphy led the Buffs by placing fourth, but it was the performance of true freshman John Dressel that really stood out. Heading into the race, speculation swirled about whether Stanford would race prep phenom Grant Fisher, a two-time Foot Locker champion and a sub-4:00 miler in high school. Fisher did toe the line and acquitted himself quite well, taking 11th overall in the strongest conference in America, but he was not the top first-year finisher — that was Dressel, who ran the best race of his brief CU career to take sixth as Colorado’s second man in front of friends and family (he grew up 90 minutes away from Colfax, where the meet was held).

Dressel is a tremendous talent in his own right. It was Dressel, who ran 3:47 for 1500 and 8:50 for 2 miles in HS, that Fisher outkicked to win one of the most exciting Foot Locker finals in memory two years ago (Dressel was sixth last year) and Dressel also finished as the top American in the junior race at World XC in March (27th) — just three seconds behind Syracuse stud Justyn Knight, who went on to run 13:34 for 5000 last year.

But Wetmore is not rushing the freshman. Rather than work out with the Buffs’ top group — which includes Murphy, Morgan PearsonAmmar MoussaBen SaarelConnor Winter and Zach Perrin — Dressel works out with fellow true frosh Joe Klecker and redshirt freshman Ryan Forsyth.

“He’d be training with 22-year-olds if I moved him up [to the top workout group], so there’s plenty of time,” Wetmore said of Dressel.

Obviously the approach is working — Dressel was CU’s fifth man at the Rocky Mountain Shootout and Pre-Nats before breaking out at Pac-12s. And Dressel’s emergence has had another benefit — it may allow Wetmore to preserve an extra year of Saarel’s eligibility, as he did with Pearson last year. Wetmore confirmed that Saarel is 100% healthy but that he may not race this fall for CU.

“Ben is the only junior in our group that hasn’t redshirted so we’re considering that,” Wetmore said. “I thought that the race on Friday was a good opportunity to see how strong our team was without him…We’re pretty good without him.”

CU is in a slightly different position than last year. In 2014, they were overwhelming favorites with or without Pearson. In 2015, they’re definitely the favorites without Saarel, but there is some risk in counting on a freshman at NCAAs, even one as talented as Dressel. But he’s come up with two big races when CU has needed him to this year.

Wetmore was mum on when a decision would come regarding Saarel, but based on how Pac-12s went, our hunch is that he’s leaning toward redshirting him. We will not know for sure until the gun goes off in Louisville on November 21.

2. Can the Stanford men challenge Colorado?

After two months of fielding makeshift squads, the Stanford men finally unveiled its full lineup on Friday at Pac-12s, and the result was encouraging as the Cardinal took second behind Colorado (46 to 57). Second is what most observers expected before the season, and 57 points is fine if the goal is to get on the podium at NCAAs. But Colorado normally makes a leap in performance from conference to nationals, and that means Stanford will have to make an even bigger jump in order to challenge them in Louisville.

The good news in Palo Alto? The Cardinal did the exact same thing last year, going from third at Pac-12s (60 points) to second at NCAAs. Head coach Chris Miltenberg chose to follow a similar blueprint this year, bringing along his top guys slowly with the hope that they will peak hard for NCAAs in late November. True freshman Grant Fisher didn’t run a varsity race until Friday (he was 11th); Jim Rosa took 20th in his first cross country race in almost two years, while twin brother Joe was eighth after sitting out Wisconsin.

But for Stanford to take the next step and win it all in 2015, a lot has to go right over the next three weeks. Sean McGorty has been one of the top guys in the country this year and ran like it again on Friday, taking second only to Oregon’s Edward Cheserek. He has the ability to finish in the top five at NCAAs and will need to do it to put as much ground as possible on Colorado’s #1, Pierce Murphy. Joe Rosa, who was 8th at Pac-12s, has top-10 NCAA potential (he was second to Cheserek at the Washington Invitational and has run 13:31 on the track); he’ll have to follow in the footsteps of departed teammate Maksim Korolev, who went from 9th at Pac-12s to 4th at NCAAs last year.

If McGorty and Rosa can get in before CU’s #1, the Cardinal has a chance, but there’s uncertainty at the #3-#4-#4 spots, especially compared to the Buffaloes, who have a rock-solid four back from previous years and a fifth (Dressel) who is running terrifically right now. Stanford’s #3 on Friday was Fisher, like Dressel a true freshman. Fisher has a massive upside, but he’s unproven over 10 kilometers. If Fisher isn’t in the top 20, Stanford will need someone else to step up. Garrett Sweatt was 16th at Pac-12s this year but only 68th at NCAAs in 2014. Sam Wharton ran an exceptional race in Terre Haute last fall to take 39th, but he was 43rd (Stanford’s seventh man) on Friday.

The key for Stanford is clearly Jim Rosa. Jim Rosa was 20th on Friday. Like Fisher, he’s super-talented, but he’ll need to round into shape very quickly at NCAAs. Considering he was 5th at NCAAs in 2013 and that he’s run 13:50 and 28:57, it seems that he’s definitely likely to improve. But by how much? If Jim had run 22 seconds faster at Pac 12s and finished right behind his brother in 9th, then Stanford and Colorado would have tied at 48-48 (Colorado would have won the tie-breaker). Can Jim Rosa improve 5.5 seconds per mile in  three weeks?

The Cardinal’s run on Friday was a good sign: its best runners are healthy and in at least decent shape (except for Collin Leibold; the Georgetown 5th year was 71st in his first race of the season) and if they can make similar progress over the season’s final three weeks as they did in 2014, they’ll be a threat to upset Colorado at NCAAs. But the Buffaloes are No. 1 for a reason. Even if everything breaks right for Stanford, the Cardinal will likely need one or two Colorado athletes to have an off day in Louisville in order to win their first title since 2003.

Stanford’s Top 5 at Pac 12s Colorado’s Top 5 at Pac 12s
2 McGorty, Sean JR 23:13.7 4 Murphy, Pierce SR 23:15.2
8 Rosa, Joe SR 23:23.5 6 Dressel, John FR 23:19.4
11 Fisher, Grant FR-1 23:28.6 7 Moussa, Ammar SR 23:22.4
16 Sweatt, Garrett JR 23:41.7 14 Pearson, Morgan SR 23:31.9
20 Rosa, Jim SR 23:47.4 15 Winter, Connor SR 23:34.3

3. “A real bad day at the office. Unprecedented in Badger history.”

A Wisconsin season that began with promise and a No. 4 national ranking reached a new low on Sunday in Chicago as the Badger men finished 8th at the Big 10 Championships with 199 points, the program’s worst finish in the 108-year history of the meet. Wisconsin has dominated the conference for the last four decades, claiming 32 of the last 39 titles and finishing in the top three every year from 1981 to 2014.

“A real bad day at the office,” said Wisconsin coach Mick Byrne. “Unprecedented in Badger history.”

Now the Badgers are in serious danger of missing the NCAA Championships for the first time since 1971. The good news for the Badgers is the Great Lakes regional isn’t that good so it’s conceivable they could still finish top 2 and get an auto spot into nationals. Indiana is the #2 ranked team in the region (#5 Michigan is #1) and they are the last nationally ranked team at #30 (Michigan St is the top ‘receiving votes’ team at 31). If you want to make it to the 31 team NCAA meet, beating the #30 and #31 ranked teams in the country to get an auto spot is the most straightforward way to do it. Alternatively, the Badgers could finish third and potentially get pushed in by Indiana or Michigan State.

The Badgers could also possibly get in on their own as an at-large team, but they don’t have their usual pile of at-large points to sit on.  They didn’t get any from the Greater Louisville Classic (as explained in more detail here) but they might have picked up some by beating Florida State, and Illinois in finishing 17th at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational (but lots of other teams have beaten those teams as well). Regardless, they’re still in a tricky position. The Badgers will certainly be hoping that Florida State wins its region (it should) and that Big 10 rival Illinois can secure a bid out of the Midwest (looking more likely after the Illini’s runner-up finish at Big 10s). But none of that will matter if Wisconsin doesn’t run well at Regionals (which it is conveniently hosting this year).

So how did we get here? How did a squad loaded with young talent fall to eighth at NCAAs and the NCAA bubble?

The good news for Wisconsin: it’s not as bad as it seems. This squad is not at full-strength right now, and when you evaluate the Badgers’ performance in context, the next few years should see them return to being a player on the national stage. Unfortunately for those in Madison, the immediate future remains distressing.

The biggest reason for the Badgers’ bomb on Sunday was the DNF logged by two-time defending Big 10 champion Malachy Schrobilgen. Schrobilgen’s SI joint locked up after practice last week and he could barely walk when he woke up on Thursday morning. He had to lobby Byrne even to run on Sunday. Byrne lauded Schrobilgen’s courage after the junior set a furious early pace, but ultimately the combination of his aggressive early move to the front and his injury caused him to drop out.

If you insert Schrobilgen, who won Big 10s as a red-shirt frosh in 2013 and then repeated last year, into the results in his 2013/2014 position — 1st — the Badgers pick up 72 points, which would have moved them to sixth place — still a poor performance by Wisconsin standards, but not the disaster of Sunday. The problem is that Schrobilgen is not the only Badger dealing with injury issues this fall.

  • Ryan Kromer, sophomore (99th at NCAAs last fall) — Hasn’t raced since February. Out for the season with a stress fracture.
  • Carl Hirsch, sophomore (107th at NCAAs last fall) — Raced at Iona Meet of Champions but missed some time in the middle of the season due to “medical issues,” per Byrne. Took 78th at Big 10s after falling in the first kilometer.
  • Olin Hacker, freshman (2nd at NXN/Foot Lockers last fall) — Achilles tendon flared up after a bike accident three weeks ago. Will redshirt this fall.
  • Kai Wilmot, freshman (1st at NXN in 2013) — Redshirted last fall and still struggling to overcome some nagging injuries from high school (IT band/knee issues). “He’s training, but he’s not ready to go,” Byrne said. “He just needs time.”

All those injuries have contributed to a year from hell in Madison.

The most significant injury is the one to Schrobilgen as the Badgers pretty much have no realistic shot at NCAAs without their #1 man. The good news for Badgers fans is that Schrobilgen had an MRI on Monday, which revealed no damage according to Byrne, who was worried that racing at Big 10s may have aggravated the injury.

“He’s no worse today than he was yesterday, so I think that’s a positive sign,” Byrne said to us on Monday.

But Schrobilgen is still a question mark for regionals — Byrne said they are taking it day by day and will do everything they can to get him on the line — and there’s no cavalry coming to save the day.

“It might need more than just two weeks,” Morgan McDonald, the Badgers’ top finisher at Big 10s (5th overall), told Flotrack. “Regionals, I don’t know if we’re going be ready by then.”

McDonald has been one of the few bright spots this year (Joe Hardy also posted his best result of the fall after taking 10th at Big 10s) and with everyone in the Badgers’ top group returning, Wisconsin should be very, very good in 2016. A (healthy) top six of Schrobilgen, McDonald, Kromer, Hardy, Hirsch and Hacker will be able to run with anyone in the country. But getting all of them back to peak form will take time.

“Just like with life, you get thrown curveballs and you have to figure out what to do,” Byrne said. “You have to take a step back sometimes. You’re dealing with 17- to 20-year-olds and this is what happens. It’s part of growing up, it’s part of life and you try to work through your problems.”

More than anything, Wisconsin’s performance on Sunday should make us appreciate just how impressive what the program has accomplished truly is. Winning Big 10s — one of the strongest conferences in the country — 32 times in 39 years is ridiculous. Wisconsin has qualified for a record 43 consecutive NCAA Championships. Only Colorado, at 23 straight, has a streak even half that long (Arkansas’s streak of 37 in a row was snapped in 2011). Oregon has missed NCAAs 10 times during that span, most recently in 2011. We take it for granted that the Badgers will be good year after year — that they can ride out injuries or a bad day from a top runner and grind out result after result. In 2015, the injuries have been too much. But even though this season is looking like a lost year (though that NCAA streak isn’t officially over yet), Wisconsin remains well-positioned for future success.

4. Surprising runs from Illinois men, Penn State women

Wisconsin’s performance wasn’t the only talking point from Big 10s. In the men’s race, Michigan won its first title since 1998. The Wolverines were strong favorites coming in and they delivered, scoring 63 points to earn coach Kevin Sullivan his first title in his second year on the job. But the real surprises were the unranked Illinois men — who took down three ranked teams to finish second — and the #15 Penn State women, who upset No. 2 Michigan to earn just the school’s second Big 10 title.

Illinois’ runner-up finish was its best in 26 years and was powered by Dylan Lafond (3rd overall) and true freshman Jesse Reiser, who took 11th overall. Illinois hasn’t made it to NCAAs since 1986, but they’re currently ranked third in the Midwest Region behind Oklahoma State and Tulsa. Beating either of those squads at the Midwest Regional in Lawrence, Kans., will be tough (Tulsa was eighth at Wisconsin to Illinois’ 20th) but with wins over Ole Miss (ranked #2 in the truly awful South Region which has zero ranked teams), Indiana (#2 in Great Lakes) and Michigan State (#3 in Great Lakes), the Illini could have several at-large points. It may soon be time for some champagne in Champaign.

The Nittany Lions won just their second Big 10 title on Sunday

The Nittany Lions won just their second Big 10 title on Sunday (photo courtesy PennStateTFXC)

The Penn State women also deserve a ton of credit for taking down Pre-Nats champs Michigan on Sunday, 53-58. Though the Nittany Lions were a solid 10th at Wisconsin, they were beaten badly by Michigan at the Greater Louisville Classic on October 3, as Michigan won 34-92, putting six in front of Penn State’s #3 and eight in front of their #4. It was a different story on Sunday. Tori Gerlach, the Nittany Lions’ top runner, had an off day in Louisville, finishing 24th (3rd on the team) but she was back to her old self at Big 10s, taking fourth overall. They added three more finishers in the top 12 (including redshirt freshman Tessa Barrett, ’13 Foot Locker champ, in 12th), which was good enough to clinch the win after Michigan’s normal #2, Shannon Osika, struggled and wound up 21st.

Defending Big 10 and national champ Michigan State was a distant third. The 2015 Spartans are a shell of the 2014 version as they were again without Rachele Schulist and Lindsay Clark — their top two finishers at NCAAs last year — but junior Ali Wiersma did acquit herself well with a second place finish.

5. The Arkansas men keeps rolling

Before the season, if you were looking for a traditional power to fall off, Arkansas, not Wisconsin, would have been the trendy choice. After taking 28th at NCAAs and losing top man Stanley Kebenei, the Razorbacks seemed poised for a rebuilding year. Instead, Arkansas claimed its 23rd SEC title in the last 25 years, putting six in the top 10 in College Station, Tex., on Friday. The Razorbacks can cruise through Regionals (the South Central Region is traditionally one of the nation’s easiest) and look ahead to NCAAs, where they haven’t finished better than 10th since 2006, the penultimate year of John McDonnell‘s tenure.

Arkansas’ greatest strength has been its depth. Its top four has been interchangeable this fall — just look at their scorers from their last three meets.

Meet Runner 1 Runner 2 Runner 3 Runner 4
Chile Pepper A. George, 23:35 (3rd) F. Tonui, 23:38 (4th) C. Heymsfield, 23:38 (5th) A. Dahlquist, 24:00 (12th)
Pre-Nats A. Dahlquist, 23:38 (21st) F. Tonui, 23:43 (26th) C. Heymsfield, 23:43 (28th) G. Gonzales, 23:50 (39th)
SECs C. Heymsfield, 23:25 (2nd) F. Tonui, 23:32 (3rd) A. George, 23:36 (5th) A. Dahlquist, 23:36 (6th)

The lack of a clear #1 guy like Kebenei means that this squad will have trouble making the podium in Louisville, but the pieces are there to finish in the six to nine range.

6. Thomas Curtin prevails in the individual battle of the weekend

The best conference in the country is the Pac-12, but the most intriguing individual matchup of conference weekend came in Tallahassee, Fla., where Virginia Tech’s Thomas Curtin (Pre-Nats champ) battled Wisconsin runner-up Justyn Knight of Syracuse. The race lived up to the hype as Knight seized the lead with 200 to go, only for Curtin to come back on him 100 meters later.

“I was definitely worried,” Curtin told HokieSports.com. “[Knight] is a good kicker. He kicked past me at outdoor nationals in the 5K last year (Knight finished sixth; Curtin seventh). I know he’s good as well. We’ve traded off those wins before. But I’m confident in my kick, so I knew when he slid past that I’d be able to get right behind him and hang on and get him at the end.”

The bandana-clad Curtin wound up first in 23:23.0, with Knight second in 23:24.4; Louisville’s Edwin Kibichiy was third in 23:30.6.

7. Could this be the year the Foot Locker curse is broken?

The women’s race at ACCs was not nearly as dramatic as the men’s — Notre Dame’s NCAA 10,000 champ Molly Seidel destroyed the field, winning by 32 seconds in 19:36. But that result, and several others around the country, suggests an interesting trend: the Foot Locker curse could be over (for those unfamiliar with the Foot Locker curse: no women’s Foot Locker champion has ever won an individual NCAA XC title). Let’s take a look at the recent Foot Locker champs and see how they did this weekend:

Anna Rohrer, freshman, Notre Dame (2012/2014 Foot Locker champ)
Second at ACCs in 20:08, behind only Seidel and nine seconds up on third place Margo Malone of Syracuse.

Tessa Barrett, redshirt freshman, Penn State (2013 Foot Locker champ)
Finished 12th at Big 10s to finish as Penn State’s fourth scorer and help the Nittany Lions to just the second conference title in program history.

Seidel crushed the competition at ACCs on Friday

Seidel crushed the competition at ACCs on Friday (photo courtesy ACC Track & Field)

Molly Seidel, senior, Notre Dame (2011 Foot Locker champ)
Won ACCs by 32 seconds after taking second at Wisconsin.

Aisling Cuffe, redshirt senior, Stanford (2010 Foot Locker champ)
Won Pac-12s in 19:53, her second straight victory.

Rohrer and Barrett aren’t NCAA title threats this fall (though Rohrer will be worth monitoring closely in 2016 and beyond) but Seidel and Cuffe absolutely are. Cuffe has victories at both the Washington Invitational and now Pac-12s (where she took down Pre-Nats champ Erin Clark of Colorado, among others) while Seidel demolished the competition at ACCs and finished behind only Boise State’s Allie Ostrander at Wisconsin.

Given that Cal’s Bethan Knights, the only woman to have defeated Ostrander this year, hasn’t raced since September, Ostrander is the favorite right now after putting together another terrific performance on Friday, defeating New Mexico’s Courtney Frerichs by 15 seconds to win the Mountain West championship. But Seidel and Cuffe probably rank 2-3 right now (Cuffe didn’t run Wisco or Pre-Nats, but remember that she’s a 15:11 5ker) and you have to like their experience when it comes to NCAAs (Ostrander is a true freshman).

8. Oklahoma State women come on strong; Columbia men hold on

Cross country is at its best when there’s team drama in the final miles. Every pass impacts the team race, and by the finish, coaches and spectators are madly counting places and performing rapid-fire mental calculations to figure out which team came out on top. That drama was on full display in two meets 1,400 miles apart this weekend.

First, to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where the Heps (Ivy League Championships) returned for the first time in five years. Though the league is not as strong as it was two or three years ago, the men’s race was as compelling as any in recent memory as the after-effects of Cemetery Hill, which comes at the 4-mile mark of the race, wreaked havoc with the team scores. Check out the scores for the top four teams at 7.1k and at the finish:

7.1k
1. Columbia 4-6-8-16-17 (51)
2. Cornell 2-9-11-22-30 (74)
3. Penn 1-13-15-23-24 (76)
4. Yale 3-7-18-26-27 (81)

Finish
1. Columbia 3-7-9-18-28 (65)
2. Penn 1-12-13-21-22 (69)
3. Yale 2-5-17-25-26 (75)
4. Cornell 4-8-11-23-29 (75)

Only one of Columbia’s guys moved up over the final 900 meters, with fifth man Sam Ritz surrendering 11 places. Meanwhile every one of Penn’s guys (save champ Thomas Awad, who couldn’t move up from first place) moved up at least one spot to make it a very tight finish at the top (four of Yale’s five scorers moved up; Cameron Stanish stayed in 26th place but went from their #4 to #5). It made for a dramatic final stretch of the race as the runners pounded the cinder path parallel to Broadway, but in the end Columbia’s lead was too large to overcome as the Lions claimed their second title in three years, just as we predicted in our 3,000-word preview of the meet.

The Lions were led by senior Aubrey Myjer, who was third overall. What was impressive to us was that in his first three years at Columbia, Myjer never even made the 12-person conference squad. That led us to wonder, “Has there ever been a senior before that has placed higher in a conference meet when they never even made the meet in their first three years of college?” If you know the answer post it on our message board: MB: Guy who had never made conference xc squad was 3rd at Ivies – is this the best a 1st-time Sr has ever finished?.

Since the Ivy League won’t let graduated students compete and Myjer missed lots of time during his first three years in college, it will be interesting to see where he ends up in 2016. He grew up in Mountain View, Calif., which is the town right next to Palo Alto (home of Stanford).

In Stillwater, Okla., the Oklahoma State women were able to do what Penn couldn’t and overhaul a significant in-race gap. At 3k, Iowa State led the women’s race at Big 12s with 63 points, with Kansas second (73) and Oklahoma State third (80). But by the end, the Cowgirls had moved up by an average of nine places per woman, finishing with a winning tally of 34 points to Iowa State’s 52. Ingeborg Loevnes (3rd) and 800 specialist Kaela Edwards (4th) led the way, but the biggest mover was junior Anna Boyert, who was 25th at 6k and wound up 9th. Certainly an exciting way for Dave Smith and the OSU women to win their first conference title in XC — and on their home course, to boot.


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