Oct. 10, 2012
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Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Monday, Aug. 6, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2012-13 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Like younger brothers do, Ben Witt didn’t want to be left behind. So when his elder sibling went for a junior high cross country training run, Ben tagged along…and uncovered a passion.
“I hadn’t really heard about cross country before, but my brother went out for a run and I wanted to go with him,” Witt said. “He and my dad went out for a run together, and I begged to come along.”
Witt, a fifth-grader at the time, finished the three-mile jog.
“It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I found out I liked it,” Witt said.
Witt is a sophomore on the University of Iowa men’s cross country team. A native of Burlington, he is one of six Iowans on the Hawkeye roster.
“My goal is to build around in-state talent, so to get guys like (Witt) and (sophomore) Kevin Lewis (of Ottumwa) is important to me,” head men’s cross country coach Larry Wieczorek said.
As a senior in high school, Witt placed third at the Class 4A Iowa State Cross Country Championships, five seconds behind Lewis, the individual champion. He was fourth in the 800-meter run at the state track and field championships with a time of 1:57.12.
“I came off a good cross country season my senior year, but the track season wasn’t up to par with what I thought I was capable of,” Witt said.
He logged quality miles in the summer prior to enrolling at the UI. Then he logged some more.
“I kept plugging away,” he said. “It was a lot of mental drive to get me there.”
Witt earned a letter in cross country last fall, posting collegiate bests at 6,000 meters at the Iowa Open (20:06), 8,000 meters at the Big Ten Championship (25:35), and 10,000 meters at Chile Pepper Festival (31:57).
A strong track season added to Witt’s progression. He compiled season-bests of 4:13.07 in the mile, 8:42.33 in the 3K, and 3:52.78 in the 1,500. Witt ran the second leg on the Hawkeye 6,400-meter relay at the Drake Relays, helping the foursome to the third-fastest time in school history (17:02.26).
“He came off a track season where he made a lot of improvements that propelled him into the summer,” Wieczorek said.
Summer training is critical, according to Wieczorek, who calls it the “first half of the cross country season.”
“You have to lay the ground work for success during the summer,” Wieczorek said. “Ben has done that. He put in a good summer of base training, and he is ready to step up and have a big year for us.”
Witt is part of a dozen “interchangeable parts” on the UI team. Youthful legs have blended nicely with veterans as the Hawkeyes continue developing into a foundation Wieczorek senses is on the brink of several consecutive NCAA appearances.
“As runners we love to go out and push ourselves,” Witt said. “We take pride in being tough; cross country is a tough-man’s sport. Everybody at this level wants to get better and become the best. I’m trying to do that, my teammates are trying to do that, and we keep each other going in the right direction.”
That attitude is necessary to flourish in the Big Ten, where Wisconsin won its 13th consecutive league title in 2011 prior to capturing the NCAA crown. Five of the top 23 teams at the 2011 NCAA Championship are from the Big Ten. At least one conference program has placed in the top 10 nationally for 16 straight seasons.
“It is one of the best all-around conferences for cross country and track,” Witt said. “We go against that high level of competition, and we’re working our way up there. We want to surprise people this year, and I think we’re capable of that.”
Witt aims to help grow the UI program back to where it was from 2003-06 when the Hawkeyes finished fifth (2003), third (2004), fourth (2005) and fifth (2006) and the conference championship.
“We had a setback last year when we wanted to compete better at the Big Ten (Iowa finished 10th), and that fuels us this year,” Witt said. “We have most of the people returning from that team, so we have experience, and we have new guys coming along and showing a lot of fight. It is an uphill battle for us, but the type of workouts we have been putting in the last couple weeks, we have a shot, and we’re looking forward to it.”
When it comes to goals, Witt sidesteps his individual wish list for the betterment of the group.
“The bigger goals for me are for the team,” Witt said. “We know we have a team that is improving. We are on the verge of competing at the regional and national levels, so we want to get there and do it as a whole.”
Witt overcame an ankle sprain to finish 16th in his first competition of the fall Sept. 7 at the 8K Bradley Open (26:12); he placed 70th (out of 143) in the 8K Gold Race at the Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 29 in Minneapolis (26:22).
The Hawkeyes return to the course Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Pre-National Invitational in Louisville, Ky.