Sixth-ranked women’s cross country returns to action

By Erin Foley

After a two-week break from racing, the Illinois women’s cross country team is back in action today – this time sporting a new No. 6 preseason ranking from the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Association.

The Illini will host the 5,000-meter “Pack-It-Up” Challenge at the Arboretum in Urbana beginning at 5 p.m., while looking to win their fourth consecutive title.

Head coach Karen Harvey sees the newly released poll as a vote of confidence for the Illini, who are competing in their second and final home meet of the season this evening.

“I wasn’t sure how we’d be ranked, so I was a little surprised,” Harvey said.

“Our track season (last spring) was only mediocre; there were sicknesses, injuries. (The committee) maybe saw our recruiting class, and because of it we got more respect than we thought we would get,” she added.

In the first poll of the season, Stanford was ranked No. 1, followed by Colorado and Michigan, whom the Illini defeated at last year’s national championships. Oklahoma and BYU came in at fourth and fifth, respectively.

The Big Ten, historically one of the toughest cross country conferences, boasts five other teams in the top 30: Wisconsin (No. 10), Iowa (15), Minnesota (16), Michigan State (23) and Indiana (29).

Today’s race, similar to the one two weeks ago, will focus on giving some of the younger runners experience at the college level.

The Illini will be challenged by Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Illinois-Chicago and Illinois State.

Leading the way for Illinois will be sophomores Liz Mengyan and Jamie Kuhl, who led Illini runners at the last home meet, along with junior Rachel Hernandez, who finished second at the Pack-It-Up Challenge in 2005.

Junior Jacqui Aubert and six freshmen, including Theresa Brokaw and Taylor Bennett, will also run.

While Harvey said the team is improving – the pack of lead runners is getting tighter – she hopes to see some performances from people who are not performing to their potential at this point in the season. Harvey wants to see big races from Hernandez, Brokaw and Mengyan. “They’ve got to go out there and defend our home course. We’ve got some teams to beat. There are some girls who need confidence; they are better than they have been training. They need to find themselves in that race.”

Although Harvey said the Challenge is “pretty low-key,” she also said the Illini will be running with timed goals in mind.

Two weeks ago, Harvey gave Kuhl, Bennett and Aubert a goal of finishing the 4-kilometer race in under 18 minutes, 30 seconds.

Each came through for Harvey that race, and she is looking for each runner to take these goals as seriously as they did Sept. 1.

“They know there’s a pretty good girl from Illinois State (in senior Betsy McDonald),” Harvey said. “We don’t want a stranger winning this race, especially when we are putting some of our better runners out there.”