One hundred and thirty-three spots. That's how many positions separated junior Ethan Strand from the next-best UNC cross country finisher in the Nuttycombe Invitational in Wisconsin.
On Friday, Oct. 13, the Tar Heels met unfavorable conditions in their third meet of the season. As Strand took his jacket off and positioned himself at the starting line, he was met with the coldest racing conditions he had ever felt. Still, while being plagued by a muddy course, gusts of wind and low temperatures, three UNC runners were able to place in the top 30.
Junior Parker Wolfe, graduate Alex Phillip and Strand were able to secure the seventh, 11th and 27th spots, respectively. However, the Tar Heels fell off completely from there.
The next best UNC runner was graduate Jake Gebhardt, who posted a 160th-place finish. The rest of the Tar Heels were scattered in the 200s, out of 275 runners that competed. After placing in the top three as a team in their previous two invitationals this season, the UNC men’s cross country fell to 10th place at Nuttycombe.
Following this weekend’s meet, Chris Miltenberg, director of track and field and cross country, emphasized the importance of strengthening the team as a whole.
“They weren’t having great days and it's learning to scrap and fight for that D-plus day and I think we could do that a lot better,” he said. “If we just shore that up at number four or five, then we’re really, really good because we got good firepower up front.”
At the Virginia Invitational last month — which Miltenberg called the "most competitive early season meet in the country" — similar problems afflicted the Tar Heels. Wolfe, Phillip and Strand all placed in the top 20. While Gebhardt joined the top-40 finishers, all of the other North Carolina runners did not break the top 90.
Following the Nuttycombe, where severe depth problems plagued the team, the Tar Heels dropped six spots in the polls from their fifth-place ranking. This previous ranking was the highest in program history.
To solve these problems, Wolfe believes that North Carolina’s identity needs to be more developed before heading into the later half of the season.