The Big Ten Men's Cross Country Championships are set for Sunday, October 31st, but the competition should be much more of a treat than a trick. The Big Ten boasts five of the top-30 ranked teams in the country, with the Wisconsin Badgers holding on to the No. 1 spot. Wisconsin comes into the meet having earned the last five Big Ten Championships. All of the top five finishers from the 2003 Championships return to their respective teams including last year's individual champion Simon Bairu. The 8,000 meter event will take place at Iowa's Bill and Jim Ashton Cross Country Course. The top seven finishers will be named to the All-Conference first team and finishers eight through 14 will be designated to the second team.
Illinois' Jason Bill, posted the fifth best 8K time in school history with his 23:59.4 showing at the Indiana State University Pre-Nationals in which he finished fourth. The junior has led the team in every meet he has competed in over the last two years. Following up Bill is Trent Hoerr. The sophomore was the first ever Fighting Illini runner to qualify for the U.S. Junior Men's team. In his two years at Illinois, Hoerr has finished second on the team behind Bill in every race in which he has run. Kris Cunningham is the lone senior on the Fighting Illini roster. He has finished third on the team in all of his races this year with his best time coming at the Pre-Nationals where he posted a time of 25:40.0.
Indiana enters the Big Ten Championships as the third of six conference squads ranked in the Mondo National Top 30 poll. The No. 13 Hoosiers are led by the duo of Sean and John Jefferson. The twin brothers have been among the Cream and Crimson's top finishers in each race. Sean, who earned Big Ten Runner of the Week honors early in the season, has been the team's top finisher in every race since the season opener, including a first place finish at the Indiana Intercollegiates, hosted by Purdue. John is one of four runners that have shared the team's other top spots. Senior Tom Burns, junior Stephen Haas, and junior Eric Redman finished third through fifth at the Intercollegiates respectively, and John finished second on the team and 15th over all to help the Hoosiers to a sixth place finish at the 37 team Pre-National event in Terre Haute. Sean Jefferson's 8K time of 23:50 is the best in the conference this season heading into the Big Ten Championships.
The Iowa Hawkeyes round out the conference's five ranked teams, sitting at No. 30 in the latest Mondo National Top 30 poll. Heading into the Big Ten Championships, the Hawkeyes are paced by senior Matt Esche, who earned the season's first Big Ten Runner of the Week award. His three team-best performances led the Iowa squad through the regular season. His best showing was a third place finish at home at the Hawkeye Open, a triangular race which Iowa won. In that meet the Hawks took spots 3, 4, and 5. The other top five finishers were freshman Eric MacTaggart and junior Dan Huat. MacTaggart ran his best 8K time at the Pre-Nationals where he clocked a time of 24:58.4. Huat redshirted last season after being named to the All-Region team as a freshman in 2002.
The University of Michigan is lead by a pair of world-class athletes. Nick Willis, a 2004 Olympian for New Zealand, and Nate Brannen, last year's runner-up at the Big Ten Championships, who did not qualify for the Canadian team due to an ankle injury. While Willis has run in only one race thus far, it was a third place finish at the Indiana State Pre-Nationals, an event in which Michigan finished third. Fully recovered from his injury, team captain Brannen has earned the nod as Big Ten Male Runner of the Week for both of his outings, a second place finish at the Pre-Nationals and a third place time at the Great American Cross Country Festival in North Carolina, an event in which the Wolverines won the team title. Brannen and Willis are the only two conference teammates to run an 8K meet in less than 24 minutes this year. The third runner on Michigan's squad is true freshman Mike Woods. In his first season at Michigan, Woods placed second at the Spartan Invitational in East Lansing, in addition to earning a twelfth place finish at the Great American Festival, and 42 nd place finish at the Pre-Nationals. Sophomore Andrew Bauer earned the final Big Ten Runner of the Week honor of the season with a second place finish in the Eastern Michigan University Classic. His showing there earned him the final spot on Michigan's Big Ten Championship roster. Going into the conference championships, Michigan is sitting at the No. 7 spot in the Mondo National Top 30.
The Michigan State Spartans have run themselves into the Top 30 with a trio of consistent scorers. The No. 27 team in the nation boasts three athletes that place well, usually within close proximity to each other. The group is often led by senior Steve Sherer. He has led the Spartan finishers in three of the team's four races, including a second place finish at the Jeff Drenth Memorial Meet. Usually freshman Stephan Shay is close behind. Save a team-best seventh place showing at the Spartan Invitational, Shay has closely followed Sherer in the finishing in every race. In the four events run so far this season, the pair has finished less than three seconds apart on average. Fellow freshman Dustin Voss rounds out the Michigan State top three, having finished third on the team in three of the four races, and fourth in the other. Voss had his best time of the year at the Notre Dame Invitational running at 24:48.
The Golden Gophers, the nation's number 19 ranked team, are paced by a group of five solid runners. Senior Andrew Carlson is returning to the Big Ten Championships for the first time since 2002 after an injury forced him to redshirt last season. A 2002 All-Conference team member, Carlson has been Minnesota's top runner in all three of the teams' races this season, highlighted by a first place finish individually and a team second place showing at the Jim Drews Invitational in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Carlson earned Big Ten Male Runner of the Week honors for his performance in Wisconsin. Finishing right behind Carlson at the Drews Invitational was junior Ryan Malmin who claimed the race's second place finish. Senior Ryan is regularly in a scoring position for the Gophers. His season was highlighted by a fifth place finish at the BYU Autumn Classic. Sophomore Antonio Vega and freshman Justin Gunewald round out the team's top five.
The Ohio State Cross Country teams has had impressive showings in the majority of their meets so far, with the team finishing in the top 15 in each, including a first and second place finish. The team is headed by junior Brian Olinger, who was named the Big Ten Male Runner of the Week for his performance at the All-Ohio Cross Country Meet, has been Ohio State's top finisher in all four events this season. In addition to his first place finish at the All-Ohio Meet, the Buckeyes secured their first meet title of the season in the 39 team event as well. Along with Olinger, freshman John Ealy and sophomore Glenn Collins have provided consistent scoring for Ohio State throughout the season. John Ealy has finished just behind Olinger three times this season with his best time coming at the Pre-Nationals in Indiana. Collins squeezed in between Olinger and Ealy at the Roy Griak Invitational, finishing less than a second ahead of Ealy.
Dan Mazzocco comes into the Big Ten Championships looking to improve on his fourth place finish as a freshman a year ago. The Penn State team has been led in scoring twice by senior Chris Foster, whose 24:27.40 is the best 8K time of any Lion this year. Mazzocco, who had his best time come in the Paul Short Invitational, helped Penn State to a third place finish in the PSU National Invitational by finishing second overall. Senior Joel Moceri has been one of the Lions' most consistent scorers over the past two years finishing second on the team once and third twice. His best time came at the Short Invitational where he posted a 25:06.44.
The Purdue Boilermakers have had a year in which a number of young runners have been called upon to lead the team. Mostly consistently the mantle has been taken up by freshman Justin Stadt. He has led the way for the Boilermakers in three of the four meets in which he competed, with his best showing coming with an 18th place finish at the Indiana Intercollegiates. However, fellow freshmen Zach Wilder and Justin Gauthier have been challenging their classmate. Wilder paced the Purdue team at the Indiana State Invitational finishing a team best 23rd. Gauthier has finished second on the team twice and third another time with his best time coming at the Notre Dame Invitational.
For the past six years, the pace for the Big Ten Cross Country championships has been set by the Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin returns five of the top 17 finishers from the 2003 Championships including last year's individual champion, Simon Bairu. So far through the 2004 season, the Badgers have enjoyed team first place finishes in two of the three races in which they have competed. Senior Matt Tegenkamp paced the field at the 25-team Roy Griak Invitational, which in addition to the team top spot, saw Wisconsin sweep the first three positions; junior Bairu and sophomore Chris Solinsky, who finished third at last year's conference championships rounded out the top three. Wisconsin also took high honors at the 8K Jim Drews Invitational with Badgers finishing in the fourth through eighth positions at the 30 team event. Wisconsin has held onto the No. 1 national ranking the entire season and both Tegenkamp and junior Bobby Lockhart have earned Big Ten Runner of the Week honors.