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Defending champs in search of final pieces to puzzle

<b>Senior Maverick Darling will lead the way as the Badgers host the marquee event of cross country's regular season Friday.</b>

Senior Maverick Darling will lead the way as the Badgers host the marquee event of cross country's regular season Friday.

Oct. 11, 2012


Wisconsin adidas Invitational Info

MADISON, Wis. -- Mick Byrne is subtle like a jackhammer. So the Wisconsin men’s cross country coach didn’t hesitate to deliver a straightforward message to his runners the first time they met this fall.

It was Byrne’s own unique way of putting this season into context with last season, which just so happened to be a national championship season, the fifth in school history.

“Hey, we’re reigning national champions, but no one is going to hand us that title again,’’ lectured Byrne. “We’re going to have to get out there and work hard.’’

And then he painted a picture by “presenting the situation that we’re in.’’

Noting the return of All-Americans Mohammed Ahmed and Reed Connor and senior captain Maverick Darling, he said, “We feel like we’ve got probably the best one-two-three guys in the country.’’

That set up his punch line.

“The challenge to the rest of the team was, ‘OK, now who can step up and back those guys up?’’’ he said. “A lot of young guys in the room say they want to be Badgers; they came here to be Badgers.

“But the reality of that is … it’s not high school track, it’s not high school cross country.

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UWBadgers.com Insider

“You have to step up to the plate, and we need someone to do that in order for us to continue this roll that we’re on, whether it’s in the Big Ten or on the national scene.’’

The message came across loud and clear.

“He said what we all kind of knew,’’ Darling pointed out. “We have the talent here to win another championship. It’s just that we need some guys to step up.

“We don’t have Elliot Krause or Ryan Collins. Who are going to be the younger guys that maybe haven’t had the opportunity yet to step up and support this group as far as being in the top five?’’

Some of those questions may begin to be answered Friday when the No. 1-ranked Badgers play host to the fourth-annual Wisconsin addidas Invitational at the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course.

Nineteen of the top 30 ranked teams in the country will compete, including six of the top 10.

“We’ve had some success in September winning a few meets, but we really haven’t had any competition,’’ Darling admitted. “For us, this is a great indicator -- six weeks out from nationals -- on where our team is right now and how much we can improve.

“For the young guys, it’s definitely one of those things where you say, ‘OK, how well can you do against great competition like this? How do you handle the pressure?’

“This meet has only been going on for four years but it’s definitely a good marker just before we get into the championship season.’’

Byrne was definitely on the same page.

“This meet is going to tell us a lot,’’ he said.

Not that Byrne was telling anybody what his plans are just yet for Ahmed and Connor.

“If Mohammed redshirts, it only makes sense for us to redshirt Reed,’’ Byrne said at his Monday press conference. “So a lot of what happens is going to depend on how Mohammed responds to workouts.’’

Earlier this week the only certainty was that Darling would be running on Friday.

“No, it doesn’t affect me,’’ Darling said of the decision-making process with Ahmed and Connor. “I’ve been doing workouts with them all summer and fall and I know where we are as a group of three.

“Would I love them to be in the race this weekend? Absolutely.  But I can’t let Mick’s decision -- and their input on that decision -- affect me. Mick has a plan for all of us, individually and as a team.’’

By his own admission, Darling is looking to bounce back this season.

“I definitely had a bad year with injuries and things like that,’’ he said.

Byrne has his own perspective on Darling, a 2010 All-American who was disappointed with his personal performance at last year’s NCAA championship and then missed much of the outdoor track season with an injury.

“He’s on a mission,’’ Byrne said.

Darling, two-time team captain, is focused on leading the Badgers to another Big Ten title.

“My goals have always been the same the last two years,’’ he said.

That is, “Win a Big Ten championship as a team, and as an individual,’’ he clarified.

As far as winning another NCAA title? “That’s why I came to Wisconsin,’’ he said.

In essence, Darling was speaking to the pulse of this program.

“We know what’s at stake,’’ he said. “We understand the concept of what we’re trying to defend and what we’re trying to bring back to Madison again this year.’’

That’s music to Byrne’s ears.

“I like the leadership in Mav, Mo and Reed,’’ Byrne said of Darling, Ahmed and Connor. “I also like the younger guys giving everything that they’ve got to try and close the gap.

“Some of them are not quite as talented as others. But they’re giving everything they have right now and that’s all you can ask.

“If they can translate their training into their racing, everything is going to be good. It may not be right now. But down the road, it’s going to be good. That’s just the learning process.’’

To this extent, Byrne is hoping to learn more about Alex Brill, Rob Finnerty and Alex Hatz. Unfortunately, he’s already learned that Jacob Erschen will be sidelined with a stress fracture.

“He was coming along really well,’’ Byrne said, “and he definitely would have been huge for us.’’

On Brill’s potential, Byrne asked, “Can he handle running in the big time?’’

On Finnerty and Hatz, he asked, “Can they go 8K? Can they go 10K? Those are the big questions. Now, traditionally milers in the NCAA do pretty well.’’

Hatz set a school indoor record in the mile, while Finnerty was an All-American with a fifth-place finish in the 1500 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships last season. “They’re both looking pretty good right now,’’ Byrne added.

Addressing the big picture for his team going into Friday’s invitational, Byrne said, “To be honest, I’m more concerned with the Big Ten meet (Oct. 28 at Michigan State).’’

Everybody was gunning for Indiana last season.

“Now you have to know everyone in the Big Ten is coming for you,’’ Byrne said. “And when you look down the line and you see all those other teams, can you handle it?

“It’s not any different than any other sport.

“Who can handle the game day pressure?’’

Friday may provide some insight.

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