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Men harriers finish injury-plagued season with high heads

BY SEAN MORGAN | NOVEMBER 19, 2009 7:21 AM

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Without Ricky Stanzi, Iowa’s football team has stumbled as of late. Imagine if they lost Pat Angerer and Adrian Clayborn in the same week.

This worst-case scenario became a cold reality for the Iowa men’s cross-country team following its season-opening victory over Northern Iowa at home. Sophomore Nick Holmes and cocaptain Brenden Camplin didn’t return to competition until the Big Ten championships two months later, where they were nowhere near top form.

That same week, sophomore Sam Bailin was lost for the year.

If head coach Larry Wieczorek had known going into the 2009 season he would be without three of his top five runners for virtually the entire season, he acknowledges his team’s chances of making the NCAA championship meet would have been undoubtedly slim.

“It’s like I tell the team, in a race, you have to go through the suffering,” he said. “We had to suffer if we were going to earn that satisfaction.”

Yet when the final runner crossed the finish line at the Midwest Regional on Nov. 14, Iowa was so close to qualifying for the NCAA championship that it took a lost head-to-head tiebreaker with Ohio State to keep the Hawkeyes from making the trip to Indiana State.

In reality, though, it was closer than that. If Iowa had managed to beat Arkansas at the Wisconsin Inter Regional on Oct. 3, the team would have qualified with an at-large bid. The Hawkeyes finished only seconds behind the Razorbacks.

In order to keep Iowa in contention in the Midwest Region, runners had to fill in and keep the team afloat among crippling injuries. The key season performances were a late resurgence by All-Big Ten selection Jesse Luciano, a breakout year for junior Mark Battista, and the creation of a cross-country star in freshman Jeffrey Thode, whose early career success stands as the true highlight in a season marred by setbacks.

“I’m using this first year as a learning experience,” Thode said. “Next year, we’re going to be aiming toward nationals, as a team and individually. Now that I’ve learned, I need to have a quality year [next year].”

One could argue that the Schaumburg, Ill., has already done just that, finishing ahead of his teammates in all but one meet this season, including a first-place finish at the Hawkeye Invitational and a second-place finish at the Wisconsin Inter Regional.

Battista pushed Thode toward the end of the season and into the upcoming indoor track season.

After an unassuming start to the 2009 season, Battista ran a career best at the Midwest Regional and, along with Thode, represented Iowa on the all-regional team. Finally reaching the potential that earned him a scholarship three years ago coming out of Lincoln Way Central High School in New Lenox, Ill., Battista and Wieczorek have big plans for his future.

“Coach and I want to break the school steeplechase record before I graduate,” Battista said. “I have to carry this momentum into the track season and, hopefully, qualify for nationals next season.”

Nationals may be in the exceedingly young team’s future. Luciano and cocaptains Camplin and Tommy Tate are the only graduating runners on a squad that came within a hairsbreadth of national qualification.

Still, after a long campaign that leads almost immediately into a longer track season, it’s hard for the 23-year head cross-country coach to taste the sweetness of the future through the bitterness of missed opportunities.

“Because of injuries, we obviously fell short,” Wieczorek said. “I thought this would be the best team I ever had.”


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