Nate Perry, CMUChippweas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – It all comes down to this for Central Michigan cross country. A season of highs and lows culminates with a chance to finish among the best programs in the Midwest and qualify for the NCAA Championships.
As is the case with most youthful teams, the Chippewa men and women got better as the 2017 season went along with many athletes improving on their personal bests at every meet. Talented but lacking recognition, both teams appeared poised for breakout performances at the Mid-American Conference Championships.
But, things didn’t go according to plan.
CMU’s No. 1 male runner Logan Kleam suffered back spasms early in the 8K race and never recovered, finishing a disappointing 65th. The back issue had not bothered the redshirt freshman all season.
“I started the race and (my back) was just kind of feeling tight,” Kleam said. “Then, it really got tight and didn’t feel very good, and kind of just went downhill from there.”
Kleam has received treatment since the MAC meet and said he has increased his emphasis on proper stretching and getting ample rest. The Brownstown native should be good to go for the regional.
“I’m pretty excited,” he said. “I want to fire back because I’m kind of ticked off about what happened, but I’m also trying to tune it out and not think about (the MAC race) as much as I can. Stay away from the negative thoughts.”
Sophomore Luke Anderson placed a team-best 12th at the MAC to come away with the only all-conference distinction among the CMU. Mark Beckmann was the only other Chippewa to join him in the top 30. The performance amounted to a frustrating seventh-place team finish out of nine programs.
“I wanted it to sink in for them and marinate a little bit, because I was frustrated too,” CMU men’s coach Matt Kaczor said. “We all knew that we are a much better team than what we showed. Then, we talked about it and I told them that we can let this define our season, or we can keep progressing and let this just be a hiccup.”
As expected, the Chippewas will be up against stout adversaries at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course at Indiana State University.
The men’s race will feature 268 runners from 30 schools in the Midwest. Among them are MAC frontrunners Eastern Michigan – which won the MAC Championship with just 24 points -- and Miami (Ohio), along with nationally prominent programs such as Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, which check in at Nos. 10, 15 and 25, respectively, in the NCAA rankings.
Eastern Michigan, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin all finished in the top-five at last year’s Great Lakes meet.
The men will run at 12:15 p.m. eastern time, following the women’s race at 11:15 a.m.
The CMU women’s team comes into the regional with a few more positives to reflect on from the MAC meet, but undoubtedly left room for improvement. Junior Megan O’Neil made First Team All-MAC and three other Chippewas -- Hannah Davis, Taylor Aguillon and freshman Alexis Grandys -- joined her in the top 30 as the Chippewas finished sixth in the 12-team field at the MAC
“I thought we were capable of being anywhere from third to eighth depending on the day,” CMU women’s coach Jenny Swieton said. “I think we’re still moving in the right direction, but I was left wanting a little more from our team. I’m sure they would all say the same thing.”
One of the main questions surrounding the women’s team was which cast members would slot in behind the top three of O’Neil, Aguillon and Hannah Davis. Swieton mentioned Alexis Grandys as a frontrunner to claim the fourth or fifth position, and the youngster did not disappoint.
“(Alexis) is getting better every time out,” Swieton said. “I think you’re seeing the result of her growing confidence in the 6K distance. She’s figuring out when she can use more energy to make a move during the race and she’s really starting to come around. I think it was huge for our team in regards to regionals to have her finish in that pack with Taylor and Hannah. That was really big for us.”
The CMU women will need Grandys and one other runner to step up again at regionals to round out their top-five scorers and improve on the team’s 14th place finish at last year’s race.
Just as is the case for the CMU men, a fearsome field of 34 programs awaits.
In addition to MAC champion Eastern Michigan, which is ranked No. 27 nationally, No. 8 Michigan, No. 17 Wisconsin, No. 21 Michigan State and No. 25 Ohio State will all be in attendance. Michigan is the favorite to repeat its regional championship. Wisconsin was third a year ago, while Michigan State was fourth, EMU was fifth and the Buckeyes were sixth.
“This could be our last team race this season and the question that we’re facing is, ‘how do we want to go out?’” Kaczor said. “Do we want to end with the negative momentum from the MAC and let that carry into this race, or do we want to move forward and continue with what we’re building here? We’ve had good workouts since then, but it’s going to be all about our mindset on that day.”