With a team deep with talent and experience, head coach Jerry Schumacher believes his runners have accomplished everything they have set out to do this season, and that Monday's meet is the last in on a long list of achievements they have left to claim.
"I think we've done everything that we wanted to do this season, and now it's just, you know, we're right where we want to be," Schumacher said Monday. "We just have to get to the meet now. And it's just, the week is long because we're ready to go and we want to do it. So, you know, the worries are behind us. Everyone's healthy. We're ready to run."
Schumacher claimed his fourth consecutive Big Ten Coach of the Year award as his Badgers claimed their sixth successive conference title at the Big Ten Championships in Iowa City, Iowa. UW runners Simon Bairu, sophomore Chris Solinsky and senior Matt Tegenkamp claimed the top three spots respectively, as the team finished with the fourth lowest point total (23 points) in conference history. Bairu, a junior from Saskatchewan, took home his second consecutive Big Ten Athlete of the Year award, taking individual honors for a second straight year, shaving 13 seconds off his previous time to finish in 23:45.
Despite Bairu's dominance, Schumacher feels as though anyone on his squad has the ability to carry the team. Nothing was more indicative of this than the Badgers' Nov. 13 victory at the Great Lakes Regional where they placed six runners in the top 25. The first place victory assured Wisconsin an automatic bid to Monday's national championships. Tegenkamp, who was Big Ten Athlete of the Year in 2002, took sixth overall, while Solinsky finished on his teammate's heels in seventh place. Bairu and senior Josh Spiker finished 10th and 11th, respectively, while junior Bobby Lockhart, the meet's 2003 champion, finished in 13th place. With five proven competitors and a "team-first" mentality, the Badgers are as deep as they have ever been under Schumacher.
"I think we have a group of guys that, you know, on the day, anybody could be our No. 1 guy," Schumacher said. "And that's really the type of team I think we have, not only physically, but in character. They want to win as a team and I don't think they're worried so much as to who's going to be No. 1 and who's going to be No. 2.
"And Simon happened to be our No. 1 guy at the Big Ten meet that day, and he had a great day, and he ran a fabulous race. But I think on any given day it could be somebody else who is stepping in to do that, and Simon would be just as happy for one of his teammates to have done that. If it wasn't going to be him he'd rather see one of his teammates do it."
During Monday's national championship the Badgers will meet formidable competition in No. 2 Arkansas. Coached by legendary John McDonnell, the Razorbacks have won 11 national titles in the last 20 years. Two-time defending champion Stanford placed six runners in the top 15 last year to post an amazing 150 point margin of victory over Wisconsin. 2003 Pac-10 Athlete of the Year Ryan Hall returns to lead the No. 3 Cardinal.
For Schumacher, the strength of this year's UW team lies in its experience. With proven upperclassmen leading the way, the coach believes the edge is firmly in the hands, or rather the legs, of his veteran Badgers.
"I don't think we could have won the last two years," Schumacher said. "We had very good teams, but we were very young. We didn't quite understand really what that level was, I think. And although we had parts that ran well each of those years, we weren't ready to make the next step, and I really feel this year we are ready to make that step. And we do have young guys still on our team competing, but having the senior leadership that we have will really carry this team, I think, to hopefully where we think the next level is, and that's, you know, being the team that's trying to win."
Indiana State University hosts the NCAA men's and women's national championships at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute, Ind. The men's championship race kicks off at 11:15 a.m. Central time.