Regional-champion runners prepare for NCAAs

Submission photo

Submission photo

By Erin Foley

At the Midwest Regional Championships Saturday, everything came together for the Illinois women’s cross-country team – winning its first-ever regional title and securing an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., on Monday.

But putting together strong races, running similarly to how they compete in practices, hasn’t been the team’s strong suit this season – until Saturday.

With spirits high, the Illini hope they can carry their momentum to nationals.

“Everything came together for us, I think,” said senior Cassie Hunt about Illinois’ finish on Saturday. “But I think there’s even more in there for Monday, just foreshadowing what we can do.

“We have run so well together in practices that it was just like, why can’t it come together on race day? It was a relief, like finally we can race together.”

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Although Illinois was relieved, the race still came as a bit of a surprise.

A fifth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships on Oct. 29 had the team doubting themselves.

“It surprised me, but at the same time I knew it should have been coming all along,” senior Stephanie Simms said. “But the way we were running, it was hard to know what we were going to do.”

To equal its fifth-place finish at nationals a year ago, head coach Karen Harvey has pinpointed what the Illini must focus on for Monday.

“Their last 3K has to be the best 3K, where they’re just passing people,” said Harvey, who received Midwest Coach of the Year honors on Thursday for the first time in the program’s history.

“That’s kind of what we did last year, and that’s what they need to do this year, too,” she added.

The fifth-ranked Illini will run seven runners when they compete at 11 a.m. at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course at the Wabash Family Sports Complex in Terre Haute, Ind.

Illinois will be led by freshman Angela Bizzarri and Simms, along with Hunt, juniors Maggie Carroll and Rachel Hernandez, sophomore Katie Engel and freshman Stephanie Baliga.

After missing All-American honors by just seven places at last year’s NCAA Championships, Simms is trying to earn that distinction, and getting it will motivate her this weekend.

Harvey just wants to see Simms run up to her capabilities.

“I told her in her race evaluation, ‘You can’t fall asleep,'” Harvey said.

“And she fell asleep at Midwest (Regionals), and part of the reason is there wasn’t anyone for her to run with. She got gapped, and then she was like, ‘Well what do I do now?’ At NCAAs, there’s always going to be somebody for you to run with,” she added.

Aside from relying on top runners Bizzarri and Simms, the Illini will need solid races from its third-through-fifth runners.

“We have our two in the front. It’s pretty much the three that need to work together to be closer to Stephanie and Angela,” Hunt said. “That’s just what its going to take, the last three.”

That help should come from Hunt, who earned All-America honors at the NCAA meet in 2005 and has a great deal of experience running at the national level, along with Carroll and Baliga.

Carroll has finally realized that not only can she train with the top Illini runners, but she can run with them, too, Harvey said.

“It was just a matter of getting through a tough spot between 3K and 4K. It was always the same thing,” Harvey said.

“And she’s got it now. She’s fitter and stronger than she’s ever been,” she added.

Equaling its fifth-place finish from a year ago won’t be easy, but Harvey said it is possible.

Although Harvey said Stanford, Arkansas and North Carolina State should take the first three places, barring something unexpected, she said the fourth-place spot is up for grabs – and that it would most likely go to a Big Ten team.

The question is whether it will go to Illinois, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 9 Minnesota or No. 10 Michigan. Success for Illinois will mean finishing anywhere from fourth to 10th, Harvey said.

“If we run like on Saturday (at regionals),” Simms said, “I feel we could really show people what we’re made of.”