Illini runners ready for takeoff, competition

Tim Eggerding

Tim Eggerding

By Sharon Steed

The Illini women’s cross country team will run in the Pre-Regional meet today in Peoria. And for the first time this season, all of its top runners will compete.

This race is the first of the season for seniors Jaime Turilli and Lindsey Reu and sophomore Cassie Hunt. Illinois head coach Karen Harvey said this is a “big coming-out party” because this is the first time the country will see the full A-team compete, specifically Turilli and Hunt.

“I expect those two to really impress people (today),” Harvey said.

This meet gives the Illini a look at the Regional course before November, which is a big advantage. It will also give them a chance to see how good they really are and what they need to work on.

Saturday’s meet at Loyola features the B-team, which includes all freshmen and one sophomore. Harvey wants to see them work together and to shine against the competition.

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    Not only does this race feature veteran Illini runners, but also freshman Rachel Hernandez, a walk-on from Fenton High School, who placed fifth in Illinois’ only home meet with a time of 19:09.

    Harvey said the journey was not easy for the freshman runner, who will be competing with the A-team for the first time today.

    “When she showed up to camp and all the girls were beating her, she freaked out, she couldn’t run,” Harvey said. “She said she didn’t belong here.”

    Harvey would not let her quit. She saw the talent and potential in Hernandez and stuck with her.

    “It took us two hours to complete an 8-mile run that should only take 56 minutes,” Harvey said. “She wanted to quit this team, but I told her, ‘You are not a quitter.'”

    Hernandez said a big culture shock for her was running with other people. She came from a small high school program, so she ran with the boy’s track and cross country teams to train during her sophomore and junior years.

    “We run in packs here – I never did that in high school,” she said. “All summer, I didn’t run with anybody and that’s how it was in high school. I never had girls on my team who ran with me.”

    Coming into Illinois, she was excited to just be a freshman. Hernandez felt tremendous pressure with being the top runner at her school. She said she was happy to learn from and look up to teammates like Cassie Hunt.

    “Cassie is only a sophomore and she has done so much,” she said. “Just to have those role models on our team and being able to look up to them – that’s just something I value a lot here that I didn’t have in high school.”

    Her goal for today’s meet is simple: to learn. She wants to do the best for her team and herself. Getting the experience at this meet running with the top runners will help her a lot, she said.

    Being a freshman on the A-team, especially a walk-on, is an accomplishment, and Harvey believes she will hold her own against Northwestern.

    “I expect her to finish sixth or seventh among our runners,” she said. “If she’s with somebody during that last 1K, I expect her to beat them.”

    Hernandez said she would be happy with finishing seventh among her teammates, but going for time is more important to her. She realizes how far she has come and she said she hopes to compete well with the A-team for the remainder of her career at Illinois.