Women’s cross country sends top runners to Notre Dame meet

By Jeff LaBelle

The women’s cross country team is unloading its arsenal today at the Notre Dame Invitational, competing their top seven runners for the first time this season.

Illinois has been holding out the likes of Stephanie Baliga, Katie Engel, Rachel Hernandez, and All-American sophomore Angela Bizzarri through the first two races of the year.

Now, the Illini are finally ready to debut their top runners when they face off against seven nationally ranked teams at the University of Notre Dame’s campus golf course.

“I’m anxious to finally get everyone together to race,” head coach Jeremy Rasmussen said in a press release. “We have some great competition from across the nation and this will give us a great marker on where we are and what we need to do to reach our goals.”

Rasmussen said he held out his top runners in the first two races of the year – the Illini Invite and the Illinois Intercollegiate – because he wanted his top runners to stay fresh in the face of a lengthy run through Nationals. Others, he said, are still recovering from injuries and needed time to heal.

The Illini are ranked seventh in the nation heading into the event and will compete against a field of highly ranked opponents. Topping the list is Michigan, the second-ranked team in the country, who boast a highly accomplished trio of Nicole Edwards, Natasha Luppov and Erin Webster. Webster was named the Big Ten runner of the week in early September.

Rasmussen said he expects his team’s training and a flat course to pay off in faster race times against the tough field.

“Workouts have been going well, so I expect all of our girls to run much faster than they did last year,” Rasmussen said. “I am excited to get on a fast flat course and see what they can do.”

The Notre Dame Invitational is one of the oldest intercollegiate meets in the country and will host a total of 54 schools this year in the men’s and women’s divisions. In 2006, the Illini finished fifth in the Invitational.

There will be two waves of competition, the first starting at 2 p.m. when a mixture of Division I, II and III teams race for the Gold Division. At 4:15, a Division I grouping will race for the Blue Division.