There was little doubt that Ben Saarel was far from his peak condition as the Colorado men’s cross country team reached the stretch drive toward a possible third consecutive national championship a year ago.
There also was little doubt Saarel would do whatever was asked of him to contribute to the Buffaloes’ cause.
One can’t help but wonder if last year’s attempt at a three-peat, which ended with the runner-up Buffs finishing nine points behind national champion Syracuse, might have been scripted differently had Saarel not been dogged by mononucleosis throughout much of the fall.
Back in form and ready to resume his place among the elite collegiate distance runners in the country, Saarel has the Buffs set on returning the national championship hardware to Boulder. That postseason journey takes its next significant step this week when the Buffs compete at the NCAA Mountain Regional Friday in Logan, Utah.
The top two teams from each regional advance to next week’s finals. The CU men and women’s teams are seeking their third consecutive regional titles.
“I got mono in September (last year) and I had two months of that,” Saarel said. “Going into nationals it was like, ‘Well, I trained for two weeks, let’s see what you can do.’ I think I got over the mono a few weeks beforehand. Maybe I was a little bit rusty. I remember at nationals in the first couple of (kilometers) it was like, ‘Wow, this is hard.’
“Mentally, putting yourself in that intense environment without having had done it earlier in the season, it definitely think it’s a tough situation but you have to go out and do the best you can.”
Saarel was a key component of the Buffs’ back-to-back national championships in 2013 and 2014, finishing eighth at nationals as a true freshman in 2013 and placing seventh the following year.
Last year, with his training derailed by illness, Saarel fell to 21st at the regional meet and 31st at nationals. Head coach Mark Wetmore could have kept Saarel on the sideline and given him a redshirt season — Saarel will have another year of eligibility remaining in track and field after this spring anyway — but believed even a Saarel at less than full strength would bolster CU’s run at a three-peat.
“Maybe I kind of wish I didn’t use him, but I did,” Wetmore said. “He wanted to help the team. We had a chance to win a national championship. Some teams never have that chance in their history. Had he been a couple points better, or somebody else a couple points better, we would’ve won it. I don’t greatly second-guess the decision and he was 100 percent willing to go. He didn’t feel well, and could have said that, but he didn’t.”
Heading into this week’s regional, Saarel has the look of a man ready to make amends. He finished third at the Pac-12 Conference championships two weeks ago while leading the Buffs to their sixth consecutive league crown. More impressively, Saarel’s 3.967 GPA as an engineering physics major helped him land the Pac-12’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year award — an honor the Buffs swept when senior Erin Clark landed the women’s scholar-athlete award.
“I have two years left of track, but the (end) of cross country is coming up quick,” Saarel said. “I don’t think I realized that until pre-nats and Pac-12s when I was like, ‘Wow, I only have three races left.’ Now I’m down to two. It’s definitely a weird feeling knowing it’s my last shot to do something.”