Oct. 25, 2012
MADISON, Wis. - Will the streak continue? That answer will come Sunday.
What's certain for the Badgers is who will step up in an effort to keep that streak alive.
The No. 20-ranked Wisconsin men's cross country team will try to win its 14th-consecutive conference title at the 2012 Big Ten Championship Sunday at 10:45 a.m. in East Lansing, Mich.
The Badgers hope to put their disappointing 17th-place finish at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational behind them and extend the longest title streak in conference history.
On Monday, UW head coach Mick Byrne announced he will run his three senior All-Americans in the 8-kilometer race, including 2012 Olympian Mohammed Ahmed, who will make his season debut.
"The adidas meet is in the past. We've kind of sorted out the pieces of the puzzle, and we are going to go with our big guns this week at the Big Ten championships," he said. "Mohammed Ahmed is going to run. Reed Connor will run. Maverick Darling will run. So we're excited to have those guys together."
With Ahmed, Connor and Darling, the Badgers return three of their top four finishers from the team that scored 17 points to finish with the second-lowest winning score in meet history at the 2011 Big Ten Championship. Ahmed won the individual title in a Big Ten meet-record time of 23 minutes, 18 seconds.
"There's no reason to think these guys aren't going to run well this Sunday," Byrne said. "They are very excited about putting on the uniform. They're very excited about defending our Big Ten title."
Ahmed and Darling can join Jason Casiano (1991-94) and Chris Solinsky (2003-06) as the only Badgers to earn first-team All-Big Ten accolades in four consecutive seasons.
The Badgers know what is at stake when they toe the line at Michigan State's Forest Akers East Course on Sunday.
"We're into championship week. It's what we train for," Byrne said. "It's the meat of our season. We get excited about it."
Byrne used the Wisconsin adidas Invitational to test the less experienced runners and determine who can back up Ahmed, Connor and Darling. He believes he found an answer in senior Rob Finnerty and sophomore Alex Hatz, a pair of middle-distance specialists who both earned All-America honors on the track last year.
"It's up to the younger guys to see who is going to back these guys up, especially Rob Finnerty, who had a pretty good run at the adidas meet, and also Alex Hatz," he said. "Hatz and Finnerty have to understand we need them to be good supporters. And I think certainly they are two guys that can handle that.
"We've got to make sure that our other guys realize their role. It's up to the other guys to do a good job in a supporting role as sweepers, and hopefully we come out at the end of the day with another Big Ten title."
The Badgers realize nothing comes easy, and there are pressures and expectations when a team has won the Big Ten championship 13 times in a row.
"It puts a huge target on your back, that's for sure," Byrne said. "You have to respect the other schools. Michigan beat us at the adidas meet. Indiana beat us at the adidas meet. Going into it right now, we're ranked third.
"It's something we talk about all the time. We prepare mentally for this part of the year, but in saying that, they love the idea that they've got a target on their back. They get excited about that.
"They recognize the tradition and the history, and let's face it, that's why a lot of these guys came to Wisconsin."
Byrne knows that runners are going to gun for the Badgers. But having athletes like Ahmed, Connor and Darling to lead the way makes it easier.
"I said it last year, one great advantage or asset having those guys is they have a great ability to read a race," Byrne said. "We see a lot of great athletes, but they don't always have the ability to read or lead a team or to read the race correctly.
"You can't buy it. You can't replace it."