MEET PREVIEW: Big Ten Championships
NEW ORLEANS — Back in September, several teams from the Big Ten gathered at Les Bolstad Golf Course for a preview of the tract they’d run in a month’s time at the Big Ten Conference Championships.
That “gathering” is better known as the Roy Griak Invitational.
We’re about to find out how well that preparation paid off when the gun goes off Sunday at 10 a.m. CT for the women’s race and an hour later for the men’s competition. You can watch both as they happen on the Big Ten Network.
For the sake of consistency, we’ll start with the women’s race — mainly because there is a spicy top-10 matchup brewing between No. 6 Penn State and No. 9 Michigan.
The Nittany Lions have a chance to make program history. If Penn State captures the Big Ten title once again, it will be the first time it has ever won back-to-back conference crowns.
Last year the Nittany Lions surprised everybody when they knocked off the Wolverines 53-58 in what turned out to be one of the most exciting races of the postseason. Michigan led through 4K, but Penn State clawed back and used four runners in the top-12 to get the job done.
This year the Nittany Lions aren’t underdogs as their ranking shows and it’s large in part due to their tremendous trio — Tessa Barrett,Elizabeth Chikotas and Jillian Hunsberger. Many believe them to be the best 1-2-3 in the country and they showed it at the Penn State National Open when they went 1-2-3 with Barrett leading the way.
The question surrounding Penn State — and just about every other women’s team from the Big Ten that is ranked in the most recent National Coaches’ Poll — is the one about depth. Sure, that trio can finish in the top-10 on Sunday, but where will the Nittany Lions’ 4th and 5th runner go?
Outside of that, the women’s race is another chance to see Erin Finn’s Tour of Destruction. Ever since she lost to Brenna Peloquin at the Roy Griak Invitational, Finn has been on a mission and her goal is atonement. Finn is 2 for 2 since with a course record to her name at the Louisville Classic and an easy victory at the Pre-National Invitational two weeks ago.
Chances are Finn earns the individual win with Barrett second, followed by Chikotas and Hunsberger in the top-10 somewhere. That would all but seal the team title up for Penn State, but it would be foolish to write off Michigan (with the super low stick Finn should give it), No. 27Michigan State and RV Minnesota.
Over in the men’s race, we’ll see four ranked teams in action — No. 14 Michigan, No. 18 Wisconsin, No. 19 Indiana, No. 29 Michigan State — and one team that received a vote in the most recent poll (Minnesota).
Michigan is the defending champion, but history is on the Badgers’ side. If you go back to 1999, Wisconsin won 15 of the last 17 conference titles with its only losses coming in 2013 to Indiana and last year to the Wolverines — as well as six other teams (Mick Byrne’s team finished 8th).
If Michigan wins, however, it will be the first time since 1997-1998 that it won back-to-back titles. The Wolverines finished runner-up eight times between 1999 and 2015.
Michigan will be led once again by Aaron Baumgarten, who owns one of the best times at 8K in program history. Baumgarten should be flanked by Micah Beller, but needs Kyle Kroon and Billy Bund to work their way up the pack if they wish to win two in a row.
The Badgers are best suited to bring the title back to Madison — if two-time champion Malachy Schrobilgen is good to go after dropping out of the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational. Schrobilgen won the individual title in 2013 and 2014 and is a huge asset for Wisconsin. If he’s good to go, he’ll form a potent 1-2 punch with Morgan McDonald (5th last year).
Indiana has been nothing short of consistent this year and most recently finished 5th at the Pre-National Invitational. Jason Crist, Matt Schwartzer and Ben Veatch packed up and if they do so again on Sunday, the Hoosiers will be in good shape.
Michigan State is still looking for a bit more consistency, as is Minnesota.
When it comes to the race for the individual title, Schrobilgen has the pedigree to win a third if he runs. If he sits out, look for Baumgarten, McDonald or Illinois’ Dylan Lafond to break away from the pack and break the tape in front of everybody else.