While the Hoosier men’s cross country team was celebrating its second consecutive seventh place finish at the NCAA Championships last November, IU Coach Ron Helmer and the rest of the IU cross country fans were left to wonder if they could come back in 2012 just as strong.
Five of the team’s top seven runners including Andrew Poore and Ben Hubers graduated following last season.
Now, Helmer is faced with the tough decision of finding runners to fill the five open spots for this upcoming season.
But Evan Esselink, a sophomore from Ontario, Canada, thinks this team has the potential to be better than last year’s squad.
“I don’t like hearing from people that IU lost five of their top guys because it doesn’t matter,” Esselink said. “We’re older now and our team I think is stronger than last year.”
Esselink, who won Saturday’s Indiana Open 8K with a time of 25:32.6, is one of several men competing to take a spot in the top seven along with fellow sophomore JR Ricker and junior Robby Nierman.
In cross country, seven runners per team are entered in every race. When the race is over, the top five scores are added up to give the team a total score.
The pressure is on to see which of the underclassmen will take a spot in the top seven to join All-American and defending 1,500-meter NCAA Champion senior Andy Bayer, as well as returning senior, Zach Mayhew.
While Helmer mainly used Saturday’s race as a workout for his runners, Ricker, who came in fourth for the team, said he saw the event as a good way to break the ice for the season.
“I wanted to feel better considering it was just workout, but I wasn’t mad about it at all,” Ricker said. “I took away a lot of good things from it.”
Good things are all Helmer has seen with this group, he said.
Helmer also said he increased the mileage for his runners this summer, and now he considers them one of the best squad’s he’s had since he came to IU.
“This group has probably done more work than any group that I’ve had over the summer,” Helmer said. “They’ve probably are as motivated as any group I’ve had to prove themselves and have their turn, and the encouraging thing is they’re not just trying to go back and be seventh at the national meet again, they’re trying to go back and find a way to win it.”
Helmer will get another chance to watch the men this weekend when the team goes to Terre Haute for the Indiana Intercollegiates. The Hoosiers will face Purdue and Indiana State in another early season test.
While it may be looking too far ahead, Esselink said he believes this team will show how good they are in upcoming meets.
“I feel like the team is a lot close than we’ve ever been,” Esselink said. “I think we’re a good set team right now and there’s no reason why we can’t be on that podium at Nationals.”