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Rutgers builds momentum with youth movement in Princeton

<p>Sophomore Trent Brinkofski said the Princeton Invitational could be crucial for the confidence of Rutgers as the team hits the second half of the cross country season. Brinkofski won the Big Ten Cross Country Athlete of the Week on Wednesday.</p>

Sophomore Trent Brinkofski said the Princeton Invitational could be crucial for the confidence of Rutgers as the team hits the second half of the cross country season. Brinkofski won the Big Ten Cross Country Athlete of the Week on Wednesday.

In 2014, the Rutgers men’s cross country team underwent a youth movement with freshmen making up half of its active. With an inexperienced team, the Scarlet Knights were unable to crack the top three in any of their races.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Rutgers remains a relatively young team with underclassmen taking up the majority of the roster. But the combination of the returning runners having an extra year of experience under their belts, along with the freshmen contributing right away, has propelled the team to an impressive season.

The Knights have had two top-three finishes this season, and they have the opportunity to add more hardware to their collection this Saturday at the Princeton Invitational.

Rutgers is coming off a third-place finish at the Metropolitan Championships in the Bronx. The Knights finished with a total team time of 2:16:32 and five of their top-seven runners in the race were underclassmen. 

Sophomore Trent Brinkofski finished the race in 26:54.7, good for seventh overall, to lead the pack.

Rutgers' third-place team finish was its highest placement in the race in six years.

“Our goal is to keep the guys packed as a group and we were less than a minute for our first five or six,” said head coach Mike Mulqueen. “It’s good anytime to be in the top three and win a team award. For some of our young guys, it was a good accomplishment for them and hope it bodes well for the future.”

Although underclassmen make up more than half of the roster, the upperclassmen have played a vital role in the team’s success this year as well. Senior Jaimin Vekaria finished the race 11th overall and second among his teammates. 

Vekaria believes Rutgers’ high finish at the Metropolitan Championships was a sign of how strong the team is.

“It felt really good, especially to place that high and to win a trophy,” Vekaria said. “With a young team, it just kind of shows how strong we are against some of the other competition.”

The Knights will look to carry their momentum with them from the Metropolitan Championships into this weekend against some strong competition. This year’s Princeton Invitational features 23 collegiate teams from the Northeast, including a few Ivy League schools and two top-30 programs in No. 12 Villanova and No. 27 Princeton.

Last year, Rutgers placed 25th as a team in the race with an average time of 26:12. Their top five runners finished 1:06 apart while their top seven had a 1:49 gap. The Knights' top performer was Vekaria, who finished the race in 25:38 and placed 97th overall.

Even though Rutgers has the chance to claim a top-three spot in its second consecutive race, Mulqueen is more focused on his young team simply improving rather than where it winds up in the final standings.

“We’re just trying to improve every week, to be honest with you,” Mulqueen said. “Our goal is to try and keep our time differential down between our one and five and one and seven runners … the time and the place will come, I just want to see them keep getting better and better.”

West Windsor Fields, the course that the Princeton Invitational takes place on, is unique because of its flatness, which speeds up the pace of the race. One of the main reasons that the Knights are competing in this particular race is to get a feel for the course because they will return to the site on Nov. 13 for the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional qualifier.

The combination of tough competition and a fast space makes the Princeton Invitational a valuable tune-up for Rutgers following race at the Big Ten Championships. 

With that race just two weeks away, Rutgers views this weekend’s race as a chance to keep gaining confidence and momentum in advance of their second trip to the Big Ten Championships.

“It’s definitely important, I think most so in terms of confidence because it’s not a championship race,” Brinkofski said. “It’s going to be a championship caliber race but we’re not going to really need to do good necessarily. Usually going into the Big Ten (Championships), you want to be feeling strong, you want to be feeling like you’ve come off your fastest race of the season. So that’s definitely the goal because you want to go into the Big Ten's with a lot of confidence.”

For updates on the Rutgers men’s cross country team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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