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Illinois men’s cross-country ends 30-year NCAA Championships drought

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Illinois' Alex Gold (207), freshman, keeps pace with his opponents at the Illini Open 2014 at the Arborteum on October 25th.

Illinois' Alex Gold (207), freshman, keeps pace with his opponents at the Illini Open 2014 at the Arborteum on October 25th.

Sonny An

Sonny An

Illinois' Alex Gold (207), freshman, keeps pace with his opponents at the Illini Open 2014 at the Arborteum on October 25th.

Tatiania Perry, Contributing writer

For the past 30 years, the Illinois men’s cross-country team has been striving to make the NCAA Championships race.

This year, the Illini did.

After placing third at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, the team had to wait to see if it qualified for an at-large bid to the Championships.

Oklahoma State and Tulsa finished with 64 points and 89 points respectively, automatically moving onto Terre Haute, Indiana, for the NCAA Championships.

For the Illini, freshman Jon Davis spent the first 16 minutes of the roughly half-hour race leading the pack, while senior Dylan Lafond waited to make his move. Between 3,500m and 4,000m, Lafond advanced 19 spots and continued to move up until he was in the top ten with just 2,000m left in the race.

Lafond earned his second consecutive All-Region honor by placing fifth with a time of 30 minutes and 27 seconds in the 10,000m. Davis, the second Illini to finish, placed 17th with a time of 30:44.9.

Head coach Jake Stewart made sure to emphasize that this was a seven-member team effort, five of whom finished in the top 50.

Sophomores Jesse Reiser and Dan Lathrop finished in the top 30. Like Lafond, they continued to move up in position throughout the race.

Lathrop made the most significant jump by passing 21 runners near the mid-race point.

Freshman Zach Dale rounded out the top 50, placing 40th in his first ever 10,000m race.

Senior Sean Pengelly, crossed the finish line in 58th place and sophomore Zach Smith in 72nd.

After the Illini finished the race Friday afternoon, Flotrack.com released a list that showed the Illini would be receiving an at-large bid.

In the past, this list has proven to be accurate, so the celebration began.

“We were able to be pretty excited about the prospects of [the Championships] because the numbers were kind of showing that it was very unlikely at that point that we weren’t going to make it,” Stewart said.

However, the team couldn’t get too excited; it had to wait until 2 p.m. on Saturday for the NCAA to announce the official list. Once it was certified, both current and former Illini were ecstatic.

Throughout the years, Stewart has had the opportunity to get to know the alumni and said he was thrilled to share this with them.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited for them because I know how badly our support group — alumni, coaches, the kids on the team now and the administration — wanted to see this happen, and that to me is a really special part of this,” Stewart said. “There was this long drought, and everyone wanted to take a stab at it and be the team to break it, and for these guys to finally break it, it was really special.”

tp3@dailyillini.com

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