Second to one: Badgers back on podium as NCAA runner-up

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- All good things must eventually come to an end. At least that’s what they say.

Don’t tell that to the Badgers.

The No. 4-ranked Wisconsin men’s cross country team returned to the podium by finishing second with a score of 135 points Saturday at the 2012 NCAA Championship in Louisville, Ky.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” said UW head coach Mick Byrne, who put the Badgers on the NCAA podium for the fourth time in five seasons at the helm. “They went out to defend a national title. They went out to fight and that is exactly what they did.

“By no means are we disappointed. We made Oklahoma State earn their team title. I am proud of my guys.”

Senior All-Americans Mohammed Ahmed, Reed Connor and Maverick Darling led the Badgers, as all three runners finished in the top 12 to earn All-America honors once again.

Ahmed led UW, finishing eighth in 29 minutes, 23 seconds. Darling finished 11th in 29:30 and Connor finished right behind in 12th at 29:31.

Darling and Connor both ran the 10-kilometer race in personal best times, shaving more than 30 seconds off their previous records of 30:07 and 30:08. Byrne called the meet one of the fastest NCAA championships ever run.

“We have three All-Americans who finished in the top 15,” Byrne said. “That is incredible.

“When you look at the volume of work Reed, Mav and Mo have done for this university, these three guys are walking out with four top-10 (team) finishes.”

With his eighth-place finish, senior Mohammed Ahmed earned his fourth-consecutive All-America honor, becoming the seventh Badger to become a four-time All-American.

Darling and Connor both earned their second All-America honors with their 11th and 12th-place finishes, respectively. Darling was an All-American as a sophomore in 2010 after placing 13th and Connor earned the honor last year after finishing 36th.

Darling and Connor were the first two American-born runners to cross the finish line Saturday, as the top 10 runners were all either foreign born or international citizens.

The two seniors are very proud of the accomplishment.

“That was my top goal this year, to be the first American, to really go after it,” Darling said. “It definitely means something to me. I am very proud of my country, to represent it with pride.”

“It means an awful lot,” said Connor. “It was one of the things I was focused on going into the race. The top two Americans were Badgers today. That is special.”

Senior Rob Finnerty and sophomore Alex Hatz rounded out the scoring for Badgers. Finnerty crossed the finish line in 49th in 30:16 and Hatz finished 113th in 30:52.

Sophomore Michael Van Voorhis finished 204th (31:45) and junior Alex Brill finished 211th (31:51).

No. 1-ranked Oklahoma State won its third national championship in four years, finishing with a team score of 72 points. No. 7 Colorado was third (158), followed by No. 10 Northern Arizona in fourth (191) and No. 18 Florida State in fifth (238).

Wisconsin attempted to go three-for-three by winning the Big Ten championship, the Great Lakes Regional and the NCAA championship. Two for three, however, is still a successful season for UW.

“As a team, we gave it our all,” said Darling. “We just came up a little short. Second place is a great place for us, and we are really happy with that.”

In its NCAA-record 41st-straight NCAA appearance, the team extended its NCAA record to 22 top-three national meet finishes. Arkansas is second with 20 and Oregon is third with 18.

Byrne has been the epitome of stability and success since he took over as head coach in 2008. His team has placed no worse than seventh at the NCAA championship and has earned top-three finishes in each of the last three seasons.

“You can’t put one word on it,” said Darling. “To do all the things we have done together, been through together, all the ups and downs. Not many guys can say they have gone through that together.

“It is a bond of brothership that I will take with me for the rest of my life,” he added. “We are brothers; it truly does mean something to me. At the end of the day we love running together and love racing together.”

“It is four years of hard work and just being a team,” Connor said. “We have been through thick and thin training with them every day. It all came together today and we ran Badger tough together.”

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