Nov. 19, 2010
Lobo Cross Country -- At NCAA Championships
When/Where: Monday, Terre Haute, Indiana
Women: 6 kilometers, 10:08 a.m. (MT) start
Men: 10 kilometers, 10:48 a.m. (Mt) start
Live Streaming: NCAA.com
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
So, was Lobo coach Joe Franklin sandbagging it a bit when he said his cross country teams were heading to the NCAA Mountain Region just looking to avoid trees, holes and any plague germs that might have been lurking around Salt Lake City?
Does this mean the Lobo men's and women's cross country teams that swept the Mountain West Championships and swept the NCAA Mountain Regional are going to dash to NCAA national titles, too?
Probably not. But maybe.
"I had no idea that would happen," said Franklin, a regional Coach of The Year, after that historic UNM regional sweep. "I thought we would do OK, but I didn't see that happening.
"If we run at nationals like we did on Saturday, we'll have success. Our goal is to be in the Top Ten and once you are in the Top Ten, anything can happen."
So, are the Lobos Top Ten material at Monday's run in Terre Haute, Ind.? The national rankings have the UNM men in the No. 5 spot and ditto for the UNM women. It stands to reason that if you are in the Top 5 at Terre Haute, then that "anything can happen" theory becomes even stronger.
The Lobos are good, but in this NCAA final run Franklin's Lobos really are underdogs and he really isn't downplaying it when he says there are more talented teams. But will those powerful teams have strong meets?
Stanford and Oklahoma State are powerhouses on the men's side. If they run to full potential, the men's 10-kilometer jaunt might be a two-horse race. Wisconsin probably is the dark horse pick followed by New Mexico and a group of loaded teams.
The women's side has a clear-cut favorite in Villanova. The Wildcats won the national title in 2009, have not lost a race this season, and have simply dominated at 6 kilometers. Georgetown and Florida State would be the dark horses in that race followed by New Mexico and another clump of talented teams.
"We are in the clumps," said Franklin.
When you are in the clumps, you have a shot. Probably, the Stanford men and the Oklahoma Sate men would have to have some things go wrong. Same thing for Villanova on the women's side. But it happens. Stanford was one of the favorites last year, stumbled, and Oklahoma State snatched the title.
"Villanova won the women's title last year and their team is good, if not better. They don`t have a weakness," said Franklin. "Stanford (men) had a bad race last year for whatever reason and I'm guessing they are doing things almost the opposite of last year in preparing. Stanford is running very well and their front three runners are amazing.
"But if the stars align and everything goes well, we have a shot."
The Lobos will run at Terre Haute with a wild card in Franklin's hip pocket. That maybe-ace-in-the-hole is Nicholas Kipruto, potentially UNM's top runner. Kipruto ran hurt at the MWC Championships and did not score for the Lobos. He sat out the NCAA Regional, but will give it a go Monday at nationals. The talented Lobo is still nursing a lower-leg injury, but he is still very talented and the race at sea level should benefit all Lobos.
"We aren't putting any pressure on him to score," said Franklin of Kipruto. "We'll just run him and see what happens. He's a wild card for us. We want him to do what we want all our runners to do and that's go out there and laugh and have fun. I think kids sometimes run their best races when they have the least expectations or when there is no pressure or stress.
"It's a great opportunity to run at nationals and enjoy the experience and not worry about the pressure. Run and see what happens."
That was Franklin's philosophy at the Mountain Regional. We saw what happened. It gets tougher on Monday because the competition goes up. The Lobos may or may not leave Indiana with a big trophy, but there also is another goal for these talented Lobos in Terre Haute.
There also is an unofficial "combined" title at the NCAA finals. The Lobo men and the Lobo women combined to finish fourth in 2009 among the teams that qualified both a men`s and women`s side. That placement could be better in 2010. The Oregon men/women are ranked No. 3 and No. 6. UNM is No. 5 and No. 5. Stanford is No. 1 men and No. 7 women. Colorado is No. 8 and No. 8.
"I think for us, that's important," Franklin said of the combined finish of his two teams. "A lot of programs will have a good men's or a good women's team and let the other one suffer. We take pride in having the best teams we can possibly have.
"When you come to New Mexico, it's important for a runner to know that we emphasize and support success on both sides."
The Lobos' success in 2010 already has been amazing: A MWC sweep, a NCAA Region sweep. And although that success didn't hit Franklin by surprise, it might have exceeded his expectations.
"For the men losing Nicholas for a month, what they did was exceptional," said Franklin. "The depth of our team allowed for that success. I don't think the women really exceeded our expectations, but they have continued to improve and are a special team that is reaching its full potential."
Of course, both these Lobo teams are still reaching. The Lobo men were ranked 12th in the nation going into the 2009 NCAA finals and tied for the No. 8 spot. The 2009 Lobo women were ranked No. 25 and stunned the Terre Haute field with a 13th place finish.
Last year marked the greatest cross country season in UNM history and 2009 did not feature an NCAA Regional sweep. So, will the stars be aligned for Lobos in Terre Haute?