Rookie runners start CC season

By Erik Hall

Illinois men’s cross country coach Paul Pilkington starts his second year at Illinois by taking the team to Saturday’s Redbird Classic in Bloomington, Ill.

“The guys are much stronger; there is a big improvement from a year ago,” Pilkington said. “There is an excitement in the workouts. These young guys are running workouts that they couldn’t come close to a year ago. It’s fun to see the progress.

“We’re a much better team up front. We’re just going to be a lot better than we were a year ago.”

The race starts Saturday at 9:30 a.m. on Illinois State’s old farm course. Teams competing include Illinois State and Northern Iowa.

Saturday’s team is scheduled to feature athletes running their first cross country race for Illinois.

The veteran members of Illinois’ team are not scheduled to compete until Sept. 25 at the Roy Griak Invitational in Minneapolis.

“This is really to get the redshirt freshmen some race experience,” Pilkington said. “They’re not going to step right in and help us without getting a little bit of experience.

“I want to see where those young guys are at and give them a chance to go out and race well. We’re expecting them to still win the meet, even though we don’t have anyone from our top five racing.”

Junior Eric Wallor has been running close to the top five in practice and is the top runner competing Saturday for the Illini. Wallor redshirted the 2003 cross country season at Illinois after transferring from Harper Junior College in Palatine, Ill.

“I’m just ready to put on the uniform and see how I do my first race (at Illinois),” Wallor said. “It’s a good tune-up race. It’s just a good race to see where we’re at and see how some of the guys can do to crack the top seven for future races.”

Other athletes scheduled to run for the Illini are redshirt freshmen Justin Aronson, Ryan Giuliano, Mike Kelley and Tim Kelly. Also scheduled to run for the Illini is true freshman Matt Flaherty.

“It’s still early in the season, but this is definitely one of the few chances we might have to be able to prove ourselves,” Kelly said. “We just got to go into it – hopefully feeling our best – and show what we have.”

Pilkington expects some of the rookies running Saturday to contribute to the team later in the season.

“Definitely Eric will (contribute), and I think that there will be one to two of those guys that will be in our top nine at (the) conference (meet),” Pilkington said. “The others have a good chance of maybe breaking into that top seven and racing at conference also.”

A tight group of young Illini gets the chance to sort itself out Saturday before coach must choose his top nine runners for the Big Ten Conference Meet on Oct. 31.

“I think that the whole group of redshirt freshmen are real close,” Pilkington said. “We’ll just have to go race and see. I would think Eric is older and a little more experienced than they are. You don’t know and that’s why we race and go find out.”