Women make history at National Championships

Cassie Hunt runs neck and neck with Cack Ferrell of Princeton University at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind. on Nov. 21. Hunt placed 10th, and the Illinois women´s team placed 5th. Claire Napier

Cassie Hunt runs neck and neck with Cack Ferrell of Princeton University at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind. on Nov. 21. Hunt placed 10th, and the Illinois women´s team placed 5th. Claire Napier

By Erin Foley

Women’s cross country made history Monday when it finished fifth – its best showing in school history – at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind. Bettering its 2004 finish by 15 places, the team “finally fired on all cylinders,” head coach Karen Harvey said.

“I told them that if we run like we did at Pre-Nationals we’ll definitely be top-10, which was an overall goal for us,” Harvey said. “But they ran so much better than they did at Pre-Nationals, that’s what happened.”

Running in the NCAA Championships for just the second time in school history, the Illini showed no signs of nervousness. Although the rest of the pack went out considerably faster than in past races the women ran in, Harvey said she accounts her team’s stellar finish to the right reactions.

“Their race went out unbelievably fast,” she said. “Our girls run so smart, I have coaches coming up to me going, ‘Oh my God, they went out too slow, are you worried?’ And I’d look at my watch, and I’d go, ‘No I’m not.’ They went out perfect; everyone else went out over their heads.”

Illinois was once again led by junior standout and now four-time All-American Cassie Hunt, who finished in 20:05 for 10th place in the 6K race. Junior Stephanie Simms finished in 20:31. Simms’ 27th place finish did not include runners who received individual bids to the race. When those runners are included, her finish dropped to 37th, seven places out of receiving All-American honors.

“If you would have told me (Simms) would have run 20:31 and not be an All-American, I would’ve been pretty shocked,” Harvey said. “She ran an incredible race, and you can’t say anything else about it, it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Hunt and Simms ran side-by-side until more than halfway through the race, when Hunt pulled away and made her move when it was “absolutely necessary.”

“We planned that; we wanted to run just like we did at Big Tens, go out together, make our way through the crowd together,” Simms said. “That’s our comfort zone to run by each other, so when you practice with someone, you know you can do it.”

Harvey thought Hunt could finish in the top 15 to 30, but said she did not know what to expect after Hunt’s roller coaster season. Hunt broke out of her season slump in dramatic fashion, winning the Big Ten individual title in 21:00.54. Two weekends later though, she followed it up with a seventh-place finish at the Regional meet.

Each runner had lifetime personal bests, but none more so than Big Ten Freshman of the Year Katie Engel. Engel finished in 46th place with a time of 20:50, shattering her personal record by 24 seconds. Engel is running 39 seconds faster than Hunt did as a freshman and has an outstanding future for Illinois, Harvey said.

Finishing fourth and fifth for the Illini were sophomores Maggie Caroll and Katie Coppin who finished in 63rd and 66th places with times of 21:01 and 21:02, respectively.

“Maggie has been underperforming in races all year long, being better in workouts than in races, looking so good in workouts,” Harvey said. “I was hoping this would happen because you hate to see a kid do that well in practices and every race not turn out.”

Northern Arizona junior Johanna Nilsson captured the individual title with a new course record of 19:33.9, while the Stanford Cardinal won the team championship with 146 points. The Illini finished with 212 points, securing the honor as the best team in the Big Ten at the National race. Michigan finished in sixth place with 250 points, while Minnesota finished in ninth place.

“We beat them at the big dance and that’s what is important, where you end up at the end of the year, instead of where you start out at the beginning,” Simms said of Illinois beating Michigan in its third try.

Although the Illini were able to finally get their revenge, Harvey said that Michigan would not go away. As a proven top distance program for years, Harvey said the battle will only continue, and while Monday was the Illini’s day, it may not be the same case the next time the two meet.

After the Illini’s subpar performance at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Iowa City, Iowa on Nov. 12, the team received a rude awakening and wake up call. The Illini finished seventh as a team, in a race that Harvey said her team was ready to tackle. Hunt finished in seventh place and failed to defend her 2004 Regional title. As a reaction, Harvey restructured practice and created a focus for the women centered around national rankings having no relevance, Hunt said.

“When you go in a race like Regionals, and just expect to win, forget it, not at this level,” Harvey said. “They learned a hard lesson, every race you’ve got to be focused.”

Without a senior on its team, Illinois returns each runner next season, along with a number of top-rated recruits. Among them Naperville North senior Shannon Phelan, who finished second in the Class AA llinois High School Cross Country Championships earlier this month.

Happy to only be at Nationals last year and to then improve its showing tremendously, Hunt said it is great for Illinois’ program in the future, considering the number of freshmen and sophomores already with such extensive experience.

“That was the whole thing the last week, to go out with a bang,” Hunt said. “We had it written in the locker room, so to have that happen, to go out with a bang, we’re happy.”