Gut check for men’s track

 

 

By Kevin Olsen

After being named Big Ten Track Athlete of the Week, Lesiba Masheto will look to lead Illinois in its biggest meet of the year when the Illini travel to New York to compete against 95 teams from across the country in the New Balance Invitational.

The meet’s location was the site of a fourth-place finish for the Illini in 2006. Head coach Wayne Angel made it clear his goal this time around is a top-three finish in the scored meet.

“I think this year we have a much more well-rounded team, more depth, better quality and our goal is to do better than we did two years ago,” Angel said. “Great competition lends to great performances and that’s kind of how we’re looking at this.”

The Illini will have their work cut out for them, as they will be competing alongside five top-10 teams including No. 1 Tennessee, No. 3 Arkansas and No. 5 BYU. Texas, the meet’s defending champion, will also be in the field when the two-day invitational starts Friday morning.

Illinois standout Masheto is fresh off an impressive performance at the Husker Invitational, where he provisionally qualified for Nationals in the 400 meters as well as a part of the 4×400 relay team. He will anchor the relay team as well as compete in the 500 meters this weekend.

“Getting the Big Ten Athlete of the Week really boosted my confidence level,” Masheto said. “I think by the time of the Big Ten, I will be ready to run. I think what I’m lacking is my endurance and my speed. The 500 will help me with my endurance.”

The 4×400 relay team set a Big Ten season low last week after completing the race in 3:11, but Masheto thinks it can even finish a few seconds quicker this weekend. After already provisionally qualifying in the 400 meters, Masheto will run in the 500 meters for the first time in his career in an effort to get his 400 time down to where it was a year ago when he finished fifth at the NCAA Championships.

“Right now I’m not running the way I’m supposed to run, I’m behind,” Masheto said. “But I’m getting there.”

Instead of trying to get provisional qualifying marks, the Illini will be using this meet for scoring purposes in preparation for the Big Ten Championships, also a scored event.

Angel acknowledged Illinois will need to score in a variety of areas to have a chance to crack the top three. He expects freshman Eugene Ellis to improve in the 400, as well as his half-mile runners and senior Trent Hoerr in the 3,000 meters. Angel emphatically said he expects big things from senior Nick Brown in the long jump and triple jump.

“We need the people who haven’t really stepped up or made an impact to step up this weekend,” Angel said. “We’re looking for some big things from Casey Fonnesbeck (in throws), Andrew Zollner in the pole vault and Greg Shroka in the high jump.”

How the Illini finish may depend on how well sophomore Dominique Worsley performs. He will look to lower his times in the 60- and 200-meter races, as well as running the anchor in the 4×200 relay. Angel said if Worsley gets in the finals, “he will score.”

“What’s going to happen is we are going to be able to see exactly where we are,” Angel said about evaluating his team after two straight meets against tough competition. “The competition itself is what is going to help us become faster.”