UI runners get ready for practice challenge



By Laura Hettiger

The Fighting Illini men’s and women’s cross country teams aren’t going to let the heat and humidity affect their training.

Both teams have been practicing all summer and are ready to show their improvement Friday when they host the Illini Challenge. As Danville Area Community College, Illinois State, Marquette and Bradley all travel to town, the Illini will use the meet as a “dress rehearsal” for the season to come.

Men’s cross country head coach Wendel McRaven compared this meet to a preseason soccer scrimmage, but he is excited about working with this group of Illini.

“We have a solid group of guys back,” McRaven said. “These guys have bought into the vision of what this team should be.”

Because the meet is so early in the season – and will ultimately not affect their standings for Nationals – the Illini will not have all of their athletes at the starting line. Some runners are not physically ready to compete, while others are opting to stay out of competition until bigger meets arrive.

“It’s a ‘rust buster’ type of meet,” senior runner Mike Kelley said. “It’s part of the process to start the season, not one (meet) you circle on the calendar.”

Just as some of the men have decided to sit this meet out, several of the women are staying out of competition for several more weeks, too.

“I don’t want to race yet,” sophomore Stephanie Baliga said. “I want to get closer to bigger meets.”

Instead of focusing on the Illini Challenge, Baliga has her sights set on more important races. She hopes the Illini can improve on their Big Ten and NCAA performances from last season.

“I want to win Regionals again,” said Baliga, a 14th-place finisher at last year’s national qualifying meet.

Both McRaven and first-year women’s head coach Jeremy Rasmussen are ready for their athletes to be “off and running.” But before either coach can have a full lineup, they will need to figure out each runner’s level of fitness.

“I need to figure out who’s who and where they all fit into the rotation,” said Rasmussen, a former assistant coach at Arizona State.

The teams will have a two-week break before they are back in action at the Illinois Intercollegiate Meet in Normal, Ill., on Sept. 14.

The Illini Challenge takes place at the University of Illinois Arboretum, located at the corner of Florida and Lincoln avenues. The women will take off at 5 p.m. while the men will be at the starting line around 5:30 p.m.