Top seven runners debut at Augustana

By Erin Foley

The Illini women’s cross country team’s top seven runners will make their season debut today at the 6,000-meter Brissman-Lundeen Invite, hosted by Augustana College in Davenport, Iowa.

It will be the first time the Illini’s elite runners will be competing since placing fifth – the program’s best-ever finish – at the NCAA Championships in November. The race begins tonight at 5:45 at Credit Island.

With the addition of highly recruited freshmen Angela Bizzarri, Stephanie Bailga and Shannon Phelan, the AA runner-up at the 2005 Illinois state finals, the Illini are head and shoulders above where they were last season at this time.

The Illini will be led by seniors Cassie Hunt, the 2005 Big Ten Athlete of the Year and three-time All-American, and Stephanie Simms.

Sophomore Katie Engel, the 2005 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and junior runner Maggie Carroll also help to solidify the Illini’s powerful lineup.

Head coach Karen Harvey’s team has had a number of tough workouts in the last few weeks, but this is the first time the three freshmen will be running in an Illinois uniform, and more importantly, in a collegiate race.

“The freshmen are working very well with the upperclassmen,” Harvey said. “Everything looks really good, but ‘Can you race?’ is the question.”

The newcomers will need to adapt quickly, as the race will feature nearly 400 runners from mostly Division II and III schools.

In 2005, nearly 800 runners and 35 teams were registered for the men’s and women’s races.

Although this is the Illini’s first team appearance in the 25th annual race, former team member Jaime Turrilli won the open race title as an unattached runner in 2005.

“Everybody’s looking fine, but this is the first pressure situation of the season,” Harvey said.

“If they run like they do in practice – working together, being confident, watching their splits – they’ll be fine, and everyone will leave there being happy.”

One of Harvey’s main concerns for the race is that every runner keeps their pace and sticks to their goal time on the flat course.

“The level of competition is not that high, but they’ll pay for it if they go out too fast,” she said.

After last Friday’s win at the “Pack-It-Up” Challenge at the Arboretum, Harvey said every runner would need to get faster with each mile, and then at the last mile it will be “everybody for themselves.”

“It will be exciting to see our top kids as of right now work together and see what they’re made of that last mile,” Harvey said, “because we’re using this as a workout.”