Under-manned men’s cross country gives reserves a run, taking strong third at Saluki Invitational

By Erin Foley

After its 11th place finish at the Notre Dame Invitational two weekends ago, the Illinois men’s cross country team had a bad taste in its mouth.

The 25-runner pile up that knocked down seven of the Illini’s nine runners less than a quarter of a mile into the race was not what they had expected. The Illini runners had to put in double the effort to catch up with the other competitors in the 8K race, making it hard for head coach Wendel McRaven to know how the runners stacked up against the rest of the field.

“Monday their body language wasn’t good, they were a little down in the dumps,” McRaven said. “But we had great workouts (throughout the week), and their attitudes and emotions were back up.”

And knowing the importance of the Saluki Invitational, the Illini runners ran with a little more motivation Saturday in Carbondale, Ill. The runners were aware that this meet marked their last chance to make McRaven’s travel squad for the Pre-National Invitational next weekend in Terre Haute, Ind.

Without running their top seven runners, the Illini finished in third place out of nine teams with 71 points, while Southern Illinois took the title with 25 points and Southeast Missouri State came in with 66 points.

“The main reason we went to Southern was to give guys an opportunity to help earn a spot and make the travel squad, but also to get some a race under their belts,” McRaven said. “In some regards, this type of race is important to get to the level we want to be at as a program and give developmental opportunities (to runners).”

With the Illini starting to turn corners in the program’s development, McRaven feels Illinois could be reaching its goal sooner, rather than later.

“Hopefully, we will be taking a squad down in the next few years and we can win the title without our top five guys,” he said.

Junior Tim Kelly led the Illini with a seventh-place finish and a personal-best time of 25:22 for the 8K race. McRaven said he was pleased with Kelly, who missed the Notre Dame Invitational and would have been the next runner to make the traveling squad. He also said he was glad to see Kelly finally run well in training, like he has been doing, but also complement it with a good racing performance.

“If training goes well, you need positive reinforcement with racing, and he hadn’t had (a good race) this year,” McRaven said of Kelly.

Junior Justin Aronson finished in eighth place with a time of 25:25, while junior Michael Kelley came in 10th with a 25:27. Both had personal best times for an 8K race. Senior Jon Houseworth (19th place) and sophomore Tim Maier (28th) also contributed to the Illini scoring.

Although McRaven said he has a good idea of which seven runners will compete in the Pre-NCAA Invitational, he said he hasn’t finalized anything just yet. Either way, McRaven said what he saw this weekend bodes well for the remainder of the year, whatever his decision.

“Their spirits are back up; we’re over getting knocked down at Notre Dame and ready to run well over the rest of the season,” McRaven said. “All of our really important meets are still coming up.”