IU cross-country is coming off one of its best seasons in recent memory. On Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, the Hoosiers have an opportunity to top last year’s success.
The IU men’s and women’s teams will head to Ohio State’s cross-country course to race against the 13 other Big Ten teams. The Hoosier men will aim for their first conference championship since 2013, while the women will have an opportunity to take a big step toward qualifying for the NCAA championships.
The 13th-ranked IU men have risen steadily in the polls all season long. The Hoosiers will be favorites along with No. 9 Purdue, No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 17 Michigan.
IU believes it has have all the pieces of a championship team: All-American-caliber runners in seniors Kyle Mau and Ben Veatch, young talent in sophomores Arjun Jha and Matthew Schadler and experienced depth in senior Bryce Millar. However, the Hoosiers have fallen short in one aspect so far this year — beating Purdue.
Purdue has narrowly beat out its in-state rival at the top flight Joe Piane and Nuttycombe invites. While the Boilermakers do not have runners at the caliber of Mau and Veatch, who will both compete for an individual championships, their top three runners have run as a strong pack. With the Hoosiers’ Jha being a key to Hoosier success, IU head coach Ron Helmer is changing his strategy.
“We are going to focus on how much of our seven can get in front of their four,” Helmer said. “We want him closing the gap at the end.”
Jha has gone out fast and then faded at the end of both Piane and Nuttycombe invitationals. Instead of having the sophomore try to stay with Mau and Veatch, Helmer said he wants Jha to stay with the Hoosiers’ fourth through seventh runners.
If Jha can stay patient and help push Millar and Schadler — IU’s presumed fourth and fifth scorers — toward the Purdue pack, that might be enough to win a championship.
“The Big Ten is still a conference where winning a championship means something,” Helmer said. “We’ve got talented kids that came here to do things like that, and people are watching.”
Meanwhile, the IU women will not be competing for a Big Ten championship, but there is plenty on the line.
The extremely young women’s team is ranked for the first time this season at No. 23. The Hoosiers will run two true freshman and at least four sophomores in Columbus.
The Hoosiers’ struggle this season has been to run tactically as a group. However, there will be only about 120 runners in Columbus, compared to about double that number at large invitationals. The Hoosiers should be able to find each other and work together more effectively.
IU will also have sophomore Bailey Hertenstein who has become one of the best young runners in the nation. The Florida native will compete for a top-three spot individually in the women’s race.
The biggest challenge for IU will be running in the best conference in women’s cross-country, as the Big Ten has eight ranked teams. Helmer compares the competition to the high level of Big Ten volleyball.
“You can be really good but feel like you are not good at all,” Helmer said. “If we can go out there and execute well, we will beat some teams we have not beaten this year.”
A top-four finish would be a big accomplishment for the Hoosier women. Furthermore, key NCAA National Championship qualifier points are on the line. Big Ten schools are in three NCAA qualifier regions, meaning the Hoosiers have an opportunity to win points by finishing ahead of teams from other regions.
A Hoosier finish ahead of schools such as Minnesota and Penn State would move IU a step closer to qualifying for the NCAA National Championship — another large goal for the young team.
In the end, just 15 to 20 minutes in Columbus will make or break the Hoosiers’ season.