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UNC men's cross country team displays teamwork and resilience in NCAA Championship, finishes sixth

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UNC men's cross country team starting their race at the NCAA 2023 Cross Country Championship on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo Courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications.

EARLYSVILLE, Va. — Around the 7,000-meter mark of the NCAA Cross Country Championship, Parker Wolfe lost pace with the top pack of the men’s 10k race.

Any hope of a podium finish for the UNC junior and ACC champion had all but slipped. But something pushed Wolfe to keep plugging away and eventually finish ninth.

“It’s tough to want to stay in there, but I know that for the team aspect, I needed to stay where I was,” Wolfe said.

Just as Wolfe had to scrap, North Carolina men’s cross country had to fight on a day that did not go to plan. Wolfe’s top-10 finish and UNC’s sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships on Saturday were powered by a team-first mindset the Tar Heels have built.

Wolfe said he didn’t realize until after the race how hard he had to start. He crossed the 1,000-meter mark in two minutes and 30 seconds.  And that was on Panorama Farms, a course that junior Ethan Strand said is “constantly up and down” and “never flat.”

When a race gets hard the way it did for Wolfe, he admitted it can be easy to think another Tar Heel will pick up the slack. That’s the mentality Wolfe said the team has worked against to build trust.

“The biggest thing to overcome was running for each other rather than yourself,” Wolfe said.

To run as a team is the culture Wolfe has helped to build. He had experienced runners to look up to his first two years. 

Now he was the “older guy” his teammates looked up to — only two of UNC’s seven runners on Saturday had run at the NCAA Championships before (graduate transfer Alex Phillip has run at the Division III Championship).

Wolfe needed to become a leader. In that mission, he succeeded.

“Watching the way [Wolfe] invested in the other guys on this team and saying, ‘OK, man, I've been at this level, but I believe you can get here, too,’” UNC cross country director Chris Miltenberg said. “Man, that was so powerful, too. So powerful.”

What stuck out to Wolfe about being a leader this season was the impact he could have when he trusted in his teammates. So on Saturday, when Wolfe lost the chance of a podium finish, the desire to keep the trust pushed Wolfe to pick a runner in front of him and stay with that runner as hard as he could.

“It's a powerful thing to, you know, be able to trust each other like that,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe has seen how, in previous years, larger gaps between UNC runners during races have made building a unified mindset harder. With transfers and younger runners stepping up, North Carolina, according to Wolfe, now has a stronger team mindset than any year before. 

Even that, though, didn’t stop UNC from spiraling as they did at the Nuttycombe Invitational in October, where they finished an underwhelming 10th place. That’s when the Tar Heels regrouped and learned to lean on its team mindset.

“We decided instead of running as seven individuals, we were gonna run as a team,” Phillip said in a GoHeels interview before the race.

Two weeks later, North Carolina won its first ACC Championship since 1985. And on Saturday, UNC snagged its highest finish at the NCAA Championships since 1985. Running as a team was the right decision — from the bottom up to Wolfe.

Minutes after finishing 17th, Phillip was greeted by assistant coach Ian Moini. Moini put his hand on Phillip's shoulder while telling him how positive the result he just helped secure was.

“When shit hits the fan like it did today, we kept running,” Moini told Phillip.

@dmtwumasi

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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