The Daily Illini

Two seniors get one last shot

Illinois' Joe Cowlin (373) runs in the Illini Open at the University of Illinois Arboretum on Friday, Oct. 20. Cowlin placed twelfth with a time of 26:49.4 in the men's 8K.

Illinois' Joe Cowlin (373) runs in the Illini Open at the University of Illinois Arboretum on Friday, Oct. 20. Cowlin placed twelfth with a time of 26:49.4 in the men's 8K.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Joe Cowlin (373) runs in the Illini Open at the University of Illinois Arboretum on Friday, Oct. 20. Cowlin placed twelfth with a time of 26:49.4 in the men's 8K.

By Jared Farmer, Staff writer

In preparation for the Big Ten Championships, the Illinois men’s cross country team rested its main lineup during the Illini Open Invite.

With the top runners out, some of those runners who usually compete in the races got the chance to be the main scorers on the team. For this year’s Illini Open, the three runners who represented the men’s team were seniors Alex Gold and Joe Cowlin, and freshman Alex Keeble. For Gold and Cowlin, it was the last race of their Illini cross country careers.

Originally playing baseball and basketball in middle school, Gold chose to start running cross country after watching his older brother run in the IHSA State cross country race, and it quickly became Gold’s favorite sport through high school.

Cowlin decided to start running cross country after previously playing baseball and soccer as a kid.

“My favorite part and the part that I felt I was best at in baseball was stealing bases, and in soccer, I just loved popping the ball past guys and outrunning them on the sidelines,” Cowlin said. “I just loved competing from a speed standpoint, so when I started cross country around sixth grade, it kind of just took off from there.”

Both Gold and Cowlin joined the men’s cross country team in 2013 and were some of the first runners who coach Jake Stewart recruited.

“The thing that mainly made me commit here was the ambition of the program,” Cowlin said. “A lot of other schools would talk to me about their own history and what they’ve done in the past, but coach Stewart wanted to give us the opportunity to build something from the ground up and so that forward thinking is what really made me excited.”

Since their freshman years, both Gold and Cowlin have witnessed positive changes to the team.

“Throughout these past couple of years, I think we’ve all gotten more on board with Coach Stewart’s mission and have really gotten to know him,” Gold said. “I think the coolest thing about it all is that we’ve grown as a team, and it’s really cool because Coach Stewart has really grown with us.”

The changes brought in early on have allowed both Gold and Cowlin to go through ups and downs while being key contributors to the Illini.

“It was an unbelievable feeling to see all the hard work we put in pay off,” Gold said. “Making Nationals as a team as well as being at the top of Big Ten’s was a goal that everyone on this team had.”

While finishing No. 2 in the Big Ten’s during the 2015 season and qualifying for Nationals during the 2016 season, both Gold and Cowlin have valued the daily grind that comes with the practices, whether it was a workout, long run or just a rainy day. They also value the bond they’ve created with the other runners on the team.

“One of my favorite moments actually came from a 20-mile run that Alex and I went on,” Cowlin said. “Coach had mapped out an out-and-back run during our camping trip to Galena one summer, and we were the only ones who had to run 20 that day. But since we went out an extra mile, we had to run the next 10 back by ourselves. It also didn’t help that the last mile out was down a pretty steep hill, so we had to run uphill for the first mile back. It’s actually kind of hilarious because when we told everyone else, they wouldn’t believe it.”

While still being a contributor to the team, Cowlin has also faced adversity and setbacks due to a number of injuries throughout his collegiate career, namely flaring up his glutes at the start of his freshman year (a stress reaction in his tibia during his sophomore year) and injured quads going into his junior year.

However, Cowlin has made it a point to stay positive and focused and always found ways to bounce back, reinforcing the hard work ethic the team has adopted under Stewart.

“I think I finished in a way that really spoke to my career,” Cowlin said. “Looking back at it, of course I wouldn’t have wanted to put up with the injuries, but I feel like I dealt with them and came back exactly how I should have. And I finished it out exactly how I wanted to.”

Both Gold and Cowlin were grateful for their opportunities to compete at Illinois over their careers. Each runner spoke of their respect and appreciation for the coaching staff and program and left the field after the Illini Open with proud hearts.

“Once I was in (the Illini Open), it really hit home that this would be it,” Gold said. “It was unbelievable how amazing it was to finish out on our home course, with all my friends and family there. It was definitely awesome for me to go out one last time and leave it all on the field, and I’ll never forget that.”

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