Cross Country in position to clinch NCAA berth

By Kyle Diller

The climax of the cross country season is fast approaching with just more than a week to go, but before all of the excitement of the NCAA Championships, the women runners must first compete in the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships.

The No. 14 Illini have put themselves in a strong position to qualify for the NCAA Championships based on their results this season but can secure a spot in the Championships with a top-2 finish Saturday.

“It’s really the first round of the NCAA Championships, the qualifying meet to get to the NCAA Championships,” head coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. “You really just have to go in having the mind frame of just trying to take care of what we need to take care of.”

Anything less than qualifying would be a disappointment for a team that has the same make-up as the squad that took sixth at the NCAA Championships last season.

Two of its top runners are still on the squad, but sophomore Danelle Woods is out with an injury. Freshman Kristin Sutherland filled Woods’ spot impeccably in what has been an outstanding debut season.

Four-time All-American junior Angela Bizzarri, Illinois’ top runner from last season, emphasizes getting the job done at Regionals so the Illini can be worry-free in the build up to the NCAA Championships.

“It’s very important because you need to do well to get to nationals,” Bizzarri said. “You need to be in the top two so you can qualify automatically, so you’re not waiting to see if you get a bid to go. It makes it a lot less nerve-wracking if you run well.”

Senior Katie Engel has been a leading force in the Illini’s success this season as the top finisher for the Orange and Blue in all three of her races.

“I’ve been leading so far, but me and Angela, in workouts we’ve been running together, I think it depends on who has a better day,” Engel said.

The Illini need to focus on finishing well in order to assure their qualification for the NCAA Championships. But Rasmussen is already planning ahead for the team.

“We need to take care of being in the top two with the least amount of energy and mental energy as possible, so we’re able to come back nine days later and really get after it at the National Championships,” Rasmussen said.