Coach Ron Helmer knew it, but he said he wasn’t ?discouraged.
Instead, he designed an entire game plan around it.
“We felt like Michigan was worried about Wisconsin and Wisconsin was worried about Michigan, so we became bystanders watching the race play out in front of us,” Helmer said. “We allowed them to take their shots at one another. Then, at the end of the race, we delivered one of our own. They never saw us coming.”
By the end of the Big Ten Championship, everyone was looking at freshman ?Jason Crist.
He was the first of four Hoosiers in the top 10 to cross the finish line as he led the team to victory.
It was the first time IU cross-country had won the conference championship in 23 years.
“You take great pride when people execute a race plan,” said Helmer, the 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year. “You also take personal pride if the race plan happened to be the right one — and it was. We’d been trying to win a championship for a long time. It was a matter of feeling good about a job well done.”
This season, all eyes will be on the Hoosiers as they try to defend their title.
The team will revisit the scene of their championship win today in West Lafayette at the Indiana Intercollegiate Meet, a statewide competition for schools divisions one through three.
Then, following a trip to Seattle, Wash., in October, the Hoosiers will travel to perennial cross-country powerhouse Wisconsin, who had previously won the Big Ten Championship 14 years ?running.
And you can bet, Helmer said, that the Badgers will be gunning for IU.
“It’s probably easier to win (a Big Ten Championship) when no one expects you to win it,” Helmer said. “I think we’re better, but I’ve said before that whether we win or not has a lot to do with how good the competition is.”
Despite Wisconsin’s reputation, the odds will favor the Cream and Crimson this year.
The team returns all but one of its top-seven runners, redshirt senior Robby Nierman, from the 2013 season.
In the offseason, IU saw junior Rory Hunter heat up on the track when he won the Big Ten 1500-meter ?championship.
He continued that elite performance all the way to the national meet, where he placed ninth overall in the 1500-meter run.
Now a senior, Hunter will join other redshirt senior Evan Esselink in leading the team.
“Rory was probably the most successful overall on the track last spring,” Helmer said. “I’ll look to him along with Evan, a fifth-year guy who ran first for us toward the end of last year, to take charge.”
The seniority Hunter and Esselink bring to the men is lacking on the women’s side.
Due to an early season injury to redshirt senior Kelsey Duerksen, the top group is composed almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores.
But rather than weaken the team’s bond, similarities in age serve to strengthen it, sophomore Chanli Mundy said.
“We’re all very young, so this year is an adventure for us,” Mundy said. “We have a really good bond since we’re all around the same grade. It helps us work together in practice really well because we are all leading.”
The Hoosiers’ youth will be tested this season. The women’s half of the conference is dominated by nationally ranked opponents, including No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Michigan State.
IU placed sixth in the women’s Big Ten Championship race in 2013, and, as Helmer put it, the women “could be a lot better and still finish sixth.”
But if the women stay on par with the 2013 season, they will stand to make history once again alongside the men’s team.
Both squads qualified for the national meet for the first time since 2004, finishing eighth in the men’s race and 26th in the women’s race, the team’s highest collective finish in more than 10 years.
And when it comes to this year’s national stage, the men have even higher aspirations.
“Anything less than making the podium at the national meet is going to be a disappointment for us,” Crist said.
But in one aspect, Crist said, the game plan at Nationals is very similar to the men’s 2013 Big Ten Championship winning strategy.
“We keep an eye on those top teams like Oregon, Stanford and Colorado — and they’re good,” he said. “But it’s the same deal as the Big Ten last year: They’re not looking at us, but we’re ?looking at them.”
Follow reporter Tori Ziege on Twitter, @ToriZiege