Cassie’s Hunt…for a national championship

By Erin Foley

As Cassie Hunt anxiously poses for a portrait at the Armory on Monday, her demeanor is shy and reserved, but beneath the exterior, it doesn’t take much to notice that her mind is elsewhere. Her focus is on next Monday’s National Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., where one of her biggest tests awaits.

For Hunt, a junior, this season has reared its ups and downs more than at any other time in her career. Hunt’s competitive nature has been tested throughout the season, as she has gone through what she describes as a slump, her longest since she began racing in eighth grade.

After breaking out of the slump and winning a Big Ten title in a time of 21:00.54 at the Big Ten Championships in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 30, she followed it with a seventh-place finish this past weekend at the NCAA Midwest Regional.

The Roachdale, Ind., native, who one day hopes to become a national champion in either track or cross country, looks to regain her old form and focus in time for Nationals.

While she said she is disappointed about how Regionals went, she is not as worried about rebounding from that race as she was before the Big Ten Championships.

“You have to take it and learn from it,” Hunt said. “There is no way to make progress without making mistakes.”

Since first coming to Illinois, Hunt has made much progress. Head women’s cross country coach Karen Harvey said Hunt’s racing tactics, form and biomechanics are much improved, along with “becoming a kicker at the end of her race – someone who will sprint at the end of a race.” Hunt’s hurdling in the steeplechase, which she took second place in last May at the NCAA Track and Field Championships, has improved. There is a night-and-day difference compared to her sophomore year, Harvey said.

Hunt, though, did not start out as the runner she has developed into. At North Putnam High School, Hunt won 12 varsity letters in volleyball, cross country, basketball and track. She won an Indiana state 1600m title in 2002 as a junior and placed second at the Indiana state track and field meet in the 1600m and third in the 3200m as a senior. But it wasn’t until her sophomore year that Hunt took up cross country. It is her love of track that has always been the focus. Harvey saw someone with enormous potential.

“I knew she didn’t do a lot of mileage in high school; she wasn’t heavily trained,” Harvey said. “Unlike a lot of people that I was recruiting, this girl didn’t even run all year round, and she was still a state champion when I was looking into her, so I was like, ‘Wow she must be pretty talented, just naturally gifted.'”

In her three years at Illinois, Hunt has received countless honors in cross country. In 2003, she was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, becoming the first Illini to receive the accolade, and became the first Illinois freshman to qualify for the NCAA Championships. As a sophomore, she was named Midwest Regional Runner of the Year after setting the 6K school record, course record and personal best time with a time of 20:21. Hunt became the first Illinois woman to win the individual regional title.

She stole the show at the Big Ten Championships three weeks ago. She earned a place in the Illinois history books and became the first Illinois woman to ever win a Big Ten individual title.

It was only a matter of time, Harvey said, before Hunt was able to break out of her slump.

“When somebody is that fit and that talented, at some point something is going to change,” Harvey said. “Like for any athlete, it can be baseball or football, at some point something is going to change.”

Doing individual workouts in the days leading up to the Big Ten meet, Hunt said, were what allowed her to get her confidence back. Junior teammate and roommate Stephanie Simms said she was happy to see that Hunt did not let the little things get in the way of working toward her goal and that it was an honor to work with someone so talented.

“I think I was just as excited as she was,” Simms said of Hunt winning the title. “All year long, I thought she could win; everyone just kind of lost sight of it, but it’s definitely an honor.”

The three-time All-American in track and field knows her accomplishments are something unparalleled in distance running at Illinois.

“I don’t know if I ever really let it sink in,” she said. “I was looking at the (media guide), and they have all the different schools and how many individual (titles) they have, and for Illinois there is just a big goose egg right there, so I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty important, that’s something that’s pretty special to me,'” Hunt said.

While Hunt has become a stronger runner, Illinois’ team has moved into the national spotlight. No longer a secret to powerhouse cross country programs like Michigan, Illinois hopes to get a top-10 finish at Nationals.

“I just want people to see where the program started; I think I’m very lucky to be a part of that, building that program up,” Hunt said. “That’s what I would like to be associated with.”

But for all the success Hunt has had in the past few years, she has experienced a number of setbacks as well. AT 2004’s Big Ten meet, Hunt earned first-team All-Big Ten honors with her time of 21:09, which was the fourth fastest 6K time in school history. The race time, though, was not good enough for Hunt.

While she broke course record after course record, Hunt’s ultra competitive nature took over.

“I think it’s just something she grew up with, and she probably had some success in sports when she was young, and it just became her thing to win,” Harvey said. “I don’t know why it happened, she’s probably one of those kids who cries when she loses. She hates losing that much.”

Hunt said she sees herself in the same light.

“I guess some people just have it,” Hunt said. “Some people don’t really value competition that much, but I do.”

Hunt’s slump began at the Notre Dame Invite on Sept. 30 in South Bend, Ind., as she finished in fifth-place overall in a time of 16:52 for the 5K race. After the race, Harvey said Hunt had the potential to run times in the 16:20s. At the Pre-National Meet two weekends later in Terre Haute, Ind., against 34 teams, she finished with a time of 20:45 for the 6K race in 11th place. Harvey gave the team a “B+” for its performance and said that Hunt had an “off day.”

After winning a Big Ten title and then recording a seventh-place finish in the next meet at Regionals, in a race Harvey said Hunt had the potential to win, Hunt said she does not see the upcoming nationals race as added pressure.

“The pressure I put on myself is probably more than I need,” she said. “I just want to run my personal best, and hope that the outcome is good.”

A good outcome for Hunt would be to become an All-American in cross country and finish in the top-10. Described by Harvey as not a “misery loves company” kind of person, Hunt knows it’s up to her.

“We just have to stay focused,” she said. “It’s the big moment, we want to finish (the season) with a bang. It’s a big day.”