By Brad Rudner
Q: What kind of impact will new head coach Kevin Sullivan have in his first year at U-M?
After five highly successful years as an athlete and another four as the volunteer assistant, Kevin Sullivan left the University of Michigan in 2002 not knowing when he'd be back. Twelve years later, here he is, this time as the head coach of the same program he helped build.
Sullivan was already filling up his trophy case before many of his new runners were even born. In terms of history and accomplishments, Sullivan is second to nobody and it's not even close. During his four-year career (1993-95, 1997), Sullivan won four NCAA titles, received 14 NCAA All-American honors and claimed 16 Big Ten championships in track and field alone. In cross country, he was a four-time NCAA All-American, four-time NCAA Regional champion, four-time Big Ten champion and four-time Big Ten Athlete of the Year. To put it lightly, there was little Sullivan didn't accomplish.
When he ran, it was hard for others to catch up. Now, Sullivan will lean on his experiences as a student-athlete to lead the men that are following in his very footsteps, the same footsteps that he left behind all those years ago.
At the forefront is Mason Ferlic. Unquestionably the team's ace, Ferlic was an All-American last year, the first U-M runner to get such an honor since Nate Brannen in 2004. He'll retain his responsibilities as captain to a largely young group, but one that's capable of so much.
One of Sullivan's biggest jobs in the short term is rounding out the squad behind Ferlic. Sophomores Ben Flanagan and Connor Mora turned some heads as rookies last year, each earning a spot on the team's roster for the NCAA Regional Championships (Flanagan was an All-Big Ten second team selection). Though still relatively fresh, look for this duo to build off of that race experience and take the next step. They'll look to follow a similar progression to that of August Pappas, who became an All-Region pick last year and has now found his stride (no pun intended).
Junior Tony Smoragiewicz possesses obvious athletic talents from his background as a triathlete growing up, but his potential on the cross country course has been slowed by injury, particularly last season when he was only able to compete in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. If he can stay healthy, he could factor into the mix. The only senior on the squad, James Yau, is hailed as a hard worker and great teammate by his coaches and peers alike. He will have to use his experience as a three-time Big Ten Championships participant to guide this otherwise young group both on and off the course.
Sullivan isn't likely to deviate from the plan, at least not in the short term. The Wolverines won the NCAA Regional championship last season and qualified for the NCAA Championships for the third consecutive year. If there's to be a fourth, Sullivan's crew will need to hit the ground running.
Well, maybe not hit the ground.
Key Player: Mason Ferlic. If there's a top dog on this team, Ferlic is certainly it. He'll be looking to build off a phenomenal season both in cross country and in outdoor track. He's healthy, training well and his confidence is up. As captain, he'll be charged with raising the level of his teammates.
Key Competition: Oct. 18 at NCAA Pre-Nationals. By the time this mid-season meet rolls around, the Wolverines will have already gotten a few races in under Sullivan's leadership. As its name suggests, Pre-Nationals is a good preview of the NCAA Championships, giving Sullivan and Co. an opportunity to race opponents they'll face later in the season. Upon leaving Terre Haute, Sullivan should have a good idea of where his team stacks up.
Key Number: One -- the number of seniors on the squad. Everybody else on the roster has the option for at least one more year of eligibility.
Contact: Chad Shepard