By Brad Rudner
Q: With abundant leadership, depth and talent on the roster, could this be one of Mike McGuire's best teams at Michigan?
It's a fair question to pose to head coach Mike McGuire, who has quietly built a powerhouse in women's cross country. In his 22 years as head coach, U-M has won or finished second at the Big Ten Championships an astounding 18 times (nine titles -- last in 2012), while capturing nine NCAA Great Lakes Region team titles (including the last three). He's got a philosophy that clearly works, which nearly every time involves his teams peaking at the right time.
Nearly everyone returns from last year's squad that took fourth place at the NCAA Championships, including seniors Brook Handler and Taylor Pogue. Leadership is one of this team's biggest strengths and they have it in spades, as Handler and Pogue will share the bulk of those duties with classmates Megan Weschler and Alex Leptich. It's clear that McGuire has a quartet of supremely-talented harriers who have not only excelled on the biggest stages, but are fearless once arriving there. Pogue was injured last season, so the fact that the rest of the squad did as well as they did without her (an All-Region and All-Big Ten pick in 2011) is a testament to just how deep they are. With Pogue back in the fold, look out.
The list goes on. There are rising juniors Taylor Manett and Shannon Osika, who are primed for breakout seasons with two years of college experience under their belts. There are several others that redshirted last year during the cross country season but performed well during the outdoor track season, like Jamie Morrissey, Jaimie Phelan and Corinne Florie.
Oh, and then there's Erin Finn. You might have heard of her, but even if you haven't, you will. The diminutive Finn, a native of West Bloomfield, Mich., had one of the biggest impacts of any freshman last year, both in the sport and at the University of Michigan. Look at her long list of accomplishments for both cross country and track (i.e. Big Ten Athlete of the Year for cross country, Big Ten Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year, All-American in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track). Now realize that all of that was done after just one year of college competition. Yes, Finn is the real deal and frighteningly, will only be getting better.
With a deep, talented and experienced roster, the competition will be fierce to be included on the rosters for the Big Ten Championships (limited to nine), Regionals and Nationals (seven for each). If you're McGuire and you have this many options, it can't be a bad problem to have. There's serious potential to put every member of the roster in the top 25 at the Big Ten Championships, which could give U-M the edge over in-state rival Michigan State, winners of the crown in three of the last four years. The schedule also sets Michigan up for success, as the team will have an opportunity to see and run two of the three championships courses during the season (Big Ten, NCAA Championships).
One of the biggest aspects of McGuire's wildly successful philosophy is pack running. Fight the pack to reach your teammates. Run together. Finish together. Like a team. If this group of Wolverines can once again do that, they might be running all the way back to Ann Arbor with some new hardware for the trophy cases.
Key Player: Taylor Pogue. Before her injury last season, Pogue was an All-Big Ten and All-Region pick as a sophomore. If she can stay healthy, she'll strengthen an already deep group and give McGuire yet another option for championships season.
Key Competition: Oct. 18 at NCAA Pre-Nationals (Terre Haute, Ind.). Not only will the Wolverines get a dry run on the NCAA Championships course, but McGuire will come out of the meet having a very good idea of what his team looks like. This meet marks the halfway point of the season and is typically the last meet before championships season for the varsity squad.
Contact: Chad Shepard