CU Buffs men settle for sixth place at NCAA cross country championships

Daniel Petty / The Denver Post
Colorado’s Ben Saarel races during the men’s NCAA cross country championships at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course on Saturday, in Terre Haute, Ind..

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Roughly 40 minutes after the finish of the women’s NCAA cross country championships, the men of Colorado stepped to the starting line hoping to improve upon what so far had been a disappointing day for the school’s cross country program.

The women, having finished third, had started their race too conservatively and were too far behind to make up the gap. In the 10K, the men struggled much the same. The Buffs started slowly and then, amid high winds, were unable to move up well enough and ended up sixth overall with 223 points.

“If both teams do that, times seven runners, then you have to look at the coach, and have to say: How did I fail to communicate with them the necessitates of this event?” said coach Mark Wetmore, who is in his 22nd season as coach at Colorado.

Wetmore admitted afterward that CU’s No. 2 ranking in the coaches poll ahead of this race was too generous. The team lost many seniors after last year’s second-place finish in Louisville, Ky., at the NCAA championships and was thought to be mostly rebuilding this year. But a surprise win at the Pac-12 championships and a strong showing at their regional meet stoked up hope that — if they ran well — they could pull out a surprise win.

It wasn’t to be. Northern Arizona won the school’s first national title with 125 points. Stanford, Syracuse, Mississippi and Arkansas all finished ahead of the Buffs. Colorado State finished 17th.

It was the first time since 2011, CU didn’t finish first, second or third.

“I thought we were in a decent position, but it turns out we were too far back, and the front group were making some surges without us knowing it,” said sophomore John Dressel, who was CU’s third runner. “That had us a little bit buried throughout the race. I did make a few surges to re-establish my position throughout the field, but I didn’t run as well as I wanted to today.”

The Buffs were led in 21st place by senior Ben Saarel, who became only the third Buff in history, alongside Olympian Adam Goucher and Stephen Pifer, to win All-America honors four times.

“He’s in rare company,” Wetmore said. “I’m happy that he got All-American. He … moved up throughout the race to be our No. 1 runner.”

Saarel thought he was too tentative, at least in part, because of the wind.

“It was something I was thinking about through the entire race,” he said. ” … You were worried about being exposed, and in the past, I’ve cut the wind by hanging on to someone who’s moving up. And I did that a couple of times. I needed to do it a bit more for the guys who were moving up quicker.”

Still, there is considerable hope for the future. CU loses Saarel, but keeps everyone else, including redshirt freshman and Minnesota native Joe Klecker, who was the Buffs’ No. 2 runner in 28th place.

“Joe’s a courageous guy,” Wetmore said. “He’s up front. We have to constantly have to ask him to hold back. He’s going to be a real good runner in the future.”