Nov. 16, 2012
• NCAA Championship Central | Watch Live
MADISON, Wis. -- Throughout the championship season, the Wisconsin men's cross country team has had the task of competing not only against the competition, but also its own history.
So far when it comes to defending historic winning streaks, the Badgers are 2-for-2. The nation's No. 4-ranked team has its work cut out for it Saturday, though, as the Badgers run in defense of their national title at the 2012 NCAA Championship in Louisville, Ky.
First, the Badgers had to defend their Big Ten title. Wisconsin ran away with the competition and won their 14th-straight Big Ten championship on Oct. 28. Senior Maverick Darling led the charge for the Badgers with a second-place finish. The Badgers placed four runners in the top seven, winning with a team score of 33 points.
UW's run of 14 straight Big Ten titles is the longest in conference history, extending a streak that began in 1999.
Next, Wisconsin set their sights on winning its 11th-consecutive regional crown. The Badgers did just that behind a dominant win by senior Mohammad Ahmed last Friday on UW's own Thomas Zimmer Championship Course.
The Badgers had five runners finish in the top 16 overall, including three in the top six. Darling and Reed Connor finished fifth and sixth overall. Junior Alex Brill and senior Rob Finnerty turned in a strong performance of their own, with Brill finishing 15th and Finnerty taking 16th.
Heading into the NCAA championship, the mission is similar, but carries a little more weight.
Defend the crown.
UW won the program's fifth national title by claiming the 2011 NCAA Championship in Terre Haute, Ind., using a team score of 97 points to defeat two-time defending champion Oklahoma State.
Returning to the top of the podium on the national stage will be difficult, but Wisconsin believes it has developed the experience and key pieces needed to repeat.
According to UW head coach Mick Byrne, the achievements of the last four weeks will provide the momentum the Badgers need when they take to the E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park course at 12:15 p.m. Saturday.
"I've always said that the momentum from winning the Big Ten championship, taking that into the NCAA regional meet, you just can't replace that type of momentum," Byrne said. "The kids are excited about it, and they look forward to this time of year."
In addition to having winning momentum, the Badgers also boast three All-Americans in seniors Ahmed, Darling and Connor. The trio will be key in the team's success.
Last year, Ahmed led the Badgers with a fifth-place individual finish to earn his third-consecutive All-America honor. Connor ran to a 36th-place finish and All-America laurels, while Darling took 46th place. Darling was an All-American as a sophomore in 2010, when UW finished third as a team.
The trio's veteran leadership and experience will be helpful as the Badgers race to become repeat champions, but Wisconsin will also need strong performances from some faces that are relatively new to the national stage.
After playing key roles for the Badgers over the past two meets, Brill, Finnerty and Alex Hatz will need to continue improving and step up to the task at hand.
"I think they've done a really good job," Byrne said. "We're going to need those guys obviously to step up Saturday big time and continue that improvement."