In a September interview with Flotrack.org, former CU All American Andy Wacker compared head track and cross country coach, Mark Wetmore, to Gandalf, the enigmatic wizard form Lord of the Rings. And after taking a closer look at the 2012 cross country season, the comparison is an easy one to grasp, as the seasoned coach worked his magic on an inexperienced team and watched as his Buffaloes finished a historical year which included a Pac-12 championship, a 3rd place finish at NCAAs, and his second Pac-12 Coach of the Year award.
Looking at this year’s results reveals nothing out of the ordinary for the storied cross country program: another conference championship, another NCAA championship berth, and another podium finish on the big stage. Anyone who follows CU cross country knows that this is typical Mark Wetmore—in his 18 seasons as head coach he has taken the Buffs to the NCAA Championship every time, producing five national titles and four individual champions.
“We have reasonable aspirations based on how our work went,” Wetmore said. “But with the talent we get and work ethic of the guys, it’s a very rare year when the goal isn’t to finish highly in the conference and NCAAs.”
On paper, however, this year looked like it would present more of a challenge than most. The team that placed 3rd in the NCAA in 2011—due either to graduation, injury, or red-shirting—was gone, and a very young, though very talented, team was expected to pull up the collective bootstraps.
“It was interesting and challenging, but they are all tough guys and they had done a great summer of work,” Wetmore said. “They all know the price of admission to scoring varsity and they spent the whole year preparing for 2012. I couldn’t say I knew the top seven, but I knew the top 12 from which the top seven would come from.”
The newest face to the top-seven was junior transfer Jake Hurysz. As this year’s No. 1 runner, this was his first cross country season under the tutelage of Mark Wetmore.
“He was our No. 1 runner this year,” Wetmore said. “But everybody else stepped up so much that I don’t think the outcome of any race would have changed.”
What makes Wetmore such a good coach isn’t his No. 1 runner, but the strength of the rest of the team. Among this year’s top seven runners, four of them weren’t members of the varsity team last year. Freshman Pierce Murphy and Connor Winter, sophomore Hugh Dowdy, and senior Aric Van Halen, all made an enormous jump from middling in the junior varsity ranks, to scoring members of an NCAA podium team—a feat clearly facilitated by Wetmore.
The final cog in the championship machine was this year’s No. 2 man (No. 1 at Pac-12s), Blake Theroux. In 2011 the Virginia native finished 183rd at NCAAs; this year he finished 38th, good enough for an All-American certificate.
These top seven established themselves early on, as they were the top seven scorers in the team’s season opener, the Rocky Mountain Shootout.
The thing that makes this year’s finish more impressive is that a majority of the men have better pedigrees on the track than on the cross country course. Hurysz boasts a 3:42.89 1500m personal record, as well as a 13:38 5000m best. Van Halen is an All-American steeplechase and Theroux and Dowdy both qualified for the NCAA Regional Track meet this past spring.
“We can reasonably expect a significant step in their track performances,” Wetmore said. “I hesitate to predict particular times. In any case Connor, Blake, and Hugh will make nice steps and we’re looking forward to what track season has to offer.”
With all of this fall’s football drama, CU’s winningest sports team was the silent silver lining to it all. It’s comforting to know that there is a winning tradition somewhere on CU’s campus and knowing Wetmore’s coaching history—it includes numerous Olympians, and NCAA indoor and outdoor champions—it’s safe to say that it will be around for a while.
“We can expect to see a number of these guys back again next year,” Wetmore said. “We would aspire that they will take another step in fitness, and competitiveness; it should be a very competitive team”
It’s no wonder that Wetmore was named Pac-12 coach of the year. With such high expectations of the hallowed program, he took a bunch of nobodies and showed the rest of the NCAA a clean pair of heels; something that you can expect to see again come indoor and outdoor track.
And so in the midst of CU football hiring their fifth head coach since Mark Wetmore took over the cross country program, tucked away in the corner of the ramshackle Balch fieldhouse, the quiet, ponytailed leader is sitting in his windowless office, making magic in the form of long runs and interval workouts, turning high school kids into NCAA champions and happily keeping the tradition of CU running alive and kickin’.
Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Ryan Sterner at Ryan.firstname.lastname@example.org