Aug. 29, 2012
EAST LANSING, MICH. - Michigan State Head Cross Country Coach Walt Drenth is looking forward to the 2012 season for a number of reasons.
The first - and maybe most important reason - is that he feels that his men's squad has made significant and consistent progress from last season.
The second reason is that his team is entering the 2012 season relatively unscathed and injury-free. This stems from a controlled off-season in which his athletes bought into his system of training, and as a result, saw major improvements on the track in the spring.
"We think that is a symptom of the end result of starting to let go of what they believe and just trusting us," Drenth explains.
"One of the things we preach is merely getting in a race and competing to see how you stack up. It's not about getting encumbered about who's in the race or how fast you have to run. If you get in there and compete, you're going to see your marks improve and you're going to see your expectations go up."
"The thing that has excited us about last year is that when we've seen success, they've seen progress," Drenth continued. "The progress has happened because they are getting the message. They are doing a better job of staying healthy because they've let us do a better job of telling them when to stop and pull back."
Drenth describes the 2012 Spartans as a squad based upon senior leadership, yet supported by two redshirt sophomores that he believes are All-Big Ten caliber performers.
Those redshirt sophomores are 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year David Madrigal (Durand, Mich./Durand) and Alex Wilson (Kent City, Mich./Kent City).
Madrigal ran the team's best 8K time with 24:27 at the Big Ten Championships, and followed up that performance with a time of 31:38 (10K) at the NCAA Regionals. Wilson was MSU's top runner at last year's Spartan Invitational (6th place, 24:46).
"Alex (Wilson) and David (Madrigal) were some of top freshmen in the conference last year. Madrigal is special, and he can be exceptional for us this year - but Alex Wilson is not far behind. He and David have gone back and forth," said Drenth.
"Alex and David had some success on the track but at the Big Ten Outdoor Track Championships it didn't go as planned. I really wanted to remind them that they came here (to Michigan State) because they wanted this experience and they wanted this challenge in arguably the most elite distance and cross country conference in the country," added Drenth.
"They wanted the challenge to see how good they could be. They also run well and with a purpose when there's a challenge ahead of them. When they forgot that message, they didn't have as much success. I think they really spent the summer getting back to their roots and they'll be major players for us this fall."
The 2012 senior class features key contributors such as Kevin Yarnell (Maumee, Ohio/Saint John's Jesuit) and Isaiah Vandoorne (Grant, Mich./Grant) who both competed in five of the team's meets last season.
Yarnell had a strong performance against national caliber competition at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational last October, and ran as fast as 24:39 in the 8K at the Big Ten Championship meet.
"He was a regular leader for us in the later stages of the season," Drenth said of Yarnell. "The good thing for him is that he's going to have company, we're not going to have to lean on him as our top guy and rely on him to hold a particular position. Ultimately, that's going to allow him to become a little more relaxed when it comes to competing and seeing how well he can do."
Drenth is also excited at the return of VanDoorne who took the top honors at the Jeff Drenth Memorial 5K (15:39) and placed tenth at the Spartan Invitational, but suffered through injuries near the end of last season.
"He ran in the range 14:10 on the track as a redshirt freshman and was one of our top five guys at the regional meet when we last qualified for the nationals," said Drenth. "He has the experience and the talent to do exceptional things. It's always been a mystery to me - and something I've been curious to see - is how he's going to come back and approach things (after injury). If he approaches things in a manner that are going to be conducive to success, he could be as good as anybody on our team."
The Spartans will also rely heavily on a proven group of talented seniors in Ben Miller (Brooklyn, Mich./De La Salle Collegiate), Brian Hankins (Pinckney, Mich./Pinckney), and Josh McAlary (Jackson, Mich./Lumen Christi).
Miller redshirted last season due to a shoulder injury but came back strong during indoor track, smashing the school's record in the 1000 meters.
"He's had a pretty good summer and he's done all the key things. His success on the track last spring was the result of rested legs and a reflection of his talent," said Drenth of Miller. "He has the experience and he's going to be a good leader for us. A few years ago he came in 17th in the regional meet, and if we can have a few guys around him, we'll be formidable."
"As for Josh (McAlary) and Brian Hankins, they've continued to mature since they've been here."
"He (McAlary) really is invested in the team's success and his own success and I think that he recognizes and accepts his challenges," noted Drenth. "Josh pushes very hard, and his challenge is that he can't put his foot to the floor every day. It didn't hurt for him to see people like David Madrigal see some success, and David is a guy who doesn't put his foot to the floor on every occasion."
Drenth continued, "Josh could be one of the top runners in the country, but he has had foot problems stemming from the steeplechase at Penn Relays which have greatly slowed his progress."
One key component to building an elite program starts with the emphasis on cultivating younger runners who have a lot of natural ability, but need the collegiate system of training to reach their true potential.
Drenth believes that rising sophomores Ben Carruthers (Dexter, Mich./Dexter) and Drake Veitenheimer (Belmont, Mich./Rockford) fit into this category.
"With every young athlete, I think Ben's (Carruthers) success come from the fact that he's been very easy to coach and now we're seeing the consistency from him," says Drenth. "Consistency in training is really the strongest component for success, and Ben gets that. People like Ben, Alex Wilson, and David Madrigal are examples of people who are months ahead of where they were last year."
"Ben ran low 14's for the 5K this past year on the track, which is pretty good for a freshman. He's going to really help us this year and he's great competitor."
"Drake Veitenheimer and Ben Carruthers are of a similar cloth. He's (Veitenheimer) finding consistency as well and he's had a great summer. He had a good summer last year, but he pushed a little bit and something cropped up and he ended up not being able to run with us," Drenth explained. "He ignored an injury that ended up being something bigger."
"I believe he (Veitenheimer) can help us this season," Drenth added. "All we want him to do is make progress from where he was last year. I really believe that the outdoor 1500 (meters) at the Big Ten Conference meet was a huge springboard for him. It gave him some confidence and he walked away thinking "OK, I can see myself being a part of this."
"I think that when you come from a high school environment and you've run under 4:20 for the mile, and you get pounded for a year in a half in the college environment, you start to wonder "Will I even make any progress?"
"Drake (Veitenheimer) saw a little bit of light in the spring and that gave himself some confidence going into this season."
An intriguing addition to this year's roster is transfer Ryan Konen (Grand Ledge, Mich./Grand Ledge). Konen comes from Lansing Community College and has ran as fast as 14:57 (5K) during the outdoor track season.
"Coach Chuck Block (Head Coach at Lansing Community College) contacted us, and he doesn't call if he doesn't think the guy is Division 1 material," said Drenth.
"I met with him, and he (Konen) says all the rights things. He wants to see how good he can be. He wanted the Big Ten Challenge and wasn't asking for any favors," Drenth said of Konen.
"We had a lot of success with a guy from Lansing Community College a couple years back in Shane Knoll," adds Drenth. "Ryan has some similarities, just in terms of his personality. He just wants to see how well he can do, and ultimately I feel he'll be a great addition."
A number of freshman return after redshirting last year. Drenth has high hopes for Andrew Cusmano (Macomb, Mich./De La Salle Collegiate) and Caleb Rhynard (Shepherd, Mich./Shepherd) - but one athlete that has really impressed Drenth with his work ethic and competitive toughness is redshirt freshman Reed Payant.
"He's very unique," Drenth said of Payant. "Some people never go to their limit, but Reed isn't afraid to test that routinely. In the times that I had athletes go to their limit, it either scares them or that'll be what they do for the year and then they back off and they train to get back to or exceed that limit," says Drenth.
"This is not the case for Reed - he tests that limit every time and that's really a hard thing to do", Drenth continued. "To predict that he would go from 9:56 (3200 meters) to 14:30 (5000 meters), that's virtually unheard of."
"He made a lot of progress and he didn't have much of a summer (training-wise) last year. When he joined the team he wasn't running very much. I'm trying to convince him what he's done this summer greatly exceeds what he did last year and that as long as he's healthy, he'll be very good."