Women look for first-ever regional title

By Erin Foley

The Illinois women’s cross country team enters Saturday’s NCAA Midwest Regional Meet looking to win its first-ever regional title. Head coach Karen Harvey’s team will battle nationally-ranked Minnesota (11), Oklahoma State (16) and Missouri (28).

Harvey, though, said that her team is better prepared for the University of Iowa’s Ashton Cross Country Course than the Minnesota course they ran on at Big Ten’s. Harvey said Illinois raced on a muddy and hilly course in Minnesota. Oklahoma State, she said, last raced on a “pancake flat” course.

“I think my team can run way better on Iowa’s course than on Minnesota’s; they weren’t even ready for that,” she said. “I know as a coach they weren’t. I’m excited to get back on a course that actually works towards our favor…it’s very much a race track.”

In 2004, the Illini automatically qualified for the NCAA National meet after tying for second, their highest regional showing since 1984. Junior Cassie Hunt won the 2004 Individual regional title with a 6K school and course record time of 20:21. She was the first Illinois runner to receive Midwest Regional Runner of the Year.

In order to qualify for Nationals, the Illini will need to be one of the top two teams. The top four individual finishers not belonging to an advancing team will also qualify.

The Illini will be led by Big Ten Athlete of the Year Hunt, along with junior Stephanie Simms, who won All-Big Ten honors after her third-place finish and time of 21:11 at Big Tens. Harvey said that Hunt has the talent to come away with a first-place finish.

“She can win it; she can run a great race and take second or third too, but it’s not going to be easy,” she said. “It might be even harder than Big Tens. There are some Kenyans in there, it’s going to be quite a little challenge. But I think she’s ready to go, and if she has a good day, she should win.”

Winning the Big Ten meet allowed Hunt to come out of a slump. She said that winning the title was a confidence-builder.

The Illini’s core group of runners include Big Ten Freshman of the Year Katie Engel and sophomores Katie Coppin and Maggie Carroll. Coppin finished Big Tens in 13th place with a time of 21:37 for the 6K race. Coppin and Carroll finished with times of 21:44 and 22:00.24, in 18th and 24th places, respectively.

Illinois hopes to have a tight pack for its third through seventh runners, something that has been missing recently. Coppin said Illinois is looking for a 10-second spread between its third and seventh runners.

In practice, the team has been going back to “speed and quality-type intervals,” Harvey said.

“We don’t need much more strength, it’s all inside their bodies,” she said.

The Illini, who race at 12:15 p.m., are currently ranked sixth in the NCAA FinishLynx polls and first in the Midwest in WICCA Regional Rankings. Coppin said that the Illini have had a number of good workouts of late, and it should work to their advantage.

“We have been working together and running together,” Coppin said. “That’s one of the things we have going for us going into the meet.”