I haven't gone long in any post on Men's Cross Country over the last year without praising the young group's knack for running together in races. It's more important than you might think to maintain a tight pack; especially in larger races where even a second or two can drop a runner a half-dozen places.
For the last two seasons, UB has had a top runner in the lead pack and team success has depended on the strength of the next four or five. The good news is last season's entire scoring pack was faster than Buffalo's second runner in 2013. The better news is the strong top-to-bottom showing - a program-best since 2011 - came even on a bad day from Cam Bruce, the seasonlong #1. Instead, it was sophomore Alec Peinkofer who took the lead for the Bulls.
Shortly after the MAC Championship, Coach Todd Witzleben told me that Peinkofer's season-best 24:52 over the 8K course was "the best race of his life" thanks in part to a strong final kilometer. Witzleben believes that any team seeking a conference title will have to place at least two runners in the top ten. Cam Bruce was supposed to be one before a late-season injury, and Peinkofer's strong run in Mount Pleasant was good enough for 12th.
With the squad returning its entire scoring septet from those championships, Peinkofer's late-season improvement in 2014 is hopefully a sign of improvement in 2015. Already a regular among UB's first five finishers - those that count toward the team score - Peinkofer stepped up after Bruce's injury, finishing second among the Bulls at Princeton, leading the team at the MAC Championships, and finishing second again at the NCAA Northeast Regionals.
It doesn't take much reading between the lines of UB's 2015 schedule to see the program's ambition. The men will race one fewer race than last year, and have swapped out Princeton for an entry at "Pre-Nationals" in Louisville. Pre-Nationals is a yearly invitational held on the host course of the coming National Championship meet.
UB as a team last year was literally seconds away from their goal of a top-three finish in the MAC, thanks in part to Peinkofer's late-season surge. This year, if Peinkofer can join Bruce among the frontrunners in most races and the rest of the squad improves like they did between 2013 and 2014, UB should match and could surpass their best-ever showing.