One year after finishing 25th in a performance that head coach Mick Byrne called “unacceptable,” Wisconsin’s men’s cross country team came to the 2018 Nuttycombe Invitational and announced that one of the most storied programs in NCAA cross country is back.
Lead by an individual win by senior Morgan McDonald, the Badgers put three runners in the top 20 and all five in the top 75 of a deep and talented field to take second place with 135 points, beating out No. 3 Portland and No. 5 Iowa State in the process.
“It feels really good. When you look at this meet today, the quality of the teams that are in this meet. this is the best Nuttycombe Invitational we’ve ever had,” Byrne said.
McDonald and junior Oliver Hoare got to the front early in the race and held their positions well, but what put the Badgers over the top was their early patience, which allowed them to surge in the second half of the race.
UW was sixth after two kilometers, and third at the halfway mark of the eight kilometer race — 50 points behind second-placed Portland. But the Badgers used their intimate knowledge of the course, where they run workouts at least once a week, to move up in the second half of the race.
“I was just trying to stay relaxed for as long as possible,” McDonald said. “I thought someone else was going to make the move earlier but going up that hill at the end I felt good so I went and made something happen and it worked out pretty well.”
The senior from Australia followed the same tactic as fellow Badger Alicia Monson did to win the women’s race, and when he emerged from the woods with a lead and less than 500 meters to run the second roar of the day emerged from the crowd as the possibility of a hometown sweep began to take shape.
McDonald’s performance was stellar but expected — after the race Byrne said simply “Morgan is who Morgan is” — and Hoare’s 13th place was also a strong but predictable run from a defending Big Ten cross country champ. The Badgers’ biggest standout performance came from redshirt junior Olin Hacker, who missed all of 2017’s cross country season with injuries. The Madison native showed he was in good form two weeks ago with a win at the Badger Classic, but taking 17th in a field of this caliber gives the Badgers a level of depth they haven’t had in recent seasons.
Already ranked No. 7, Friday’s performance will send the Badgers shooting up the rankings even further, possibly into one of the top three spots. That position comes with expectations, especially with the Badgers hosting the national championships for the first time in November. Byrne and his runners emphasized after the race that they’re still process-focused, and even Friday’s stellar finish won’t distract from the team’s ultimate goal.
“We talk about [‘Big Tens and Beyond] all the time but its not just a saying — we mean it,” Byrne said. “NAU, they’re the standard right now and chasing those guys is going to be fun over the next couple of weeks.”
Taking down two-time defending champions Northern Arizona — who beat the Badgers by 90 points and put four runners in the top eight despite sitting out their top man Matthew Baxter — looks like a long shot for any team in 2018. But after missing out on nationals for two of the past three years, simply getting back into podium contention is an important step for Wisconsin, and it took that step on Friday.