Cross country hunkers down for top-10 finish at nationals

 

 

By Kyle Diller

It’s been nearly a year since the No. 14 Illini women finished sixth place at the NCAA Championships, a feat they want to accomplish again in this year’s installment of the race.

After automatically qualifying with a second-place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships, the Orange and Blue assured themselves of a fifth straight nationals appearance.

“Our goal is to be top 10. I think that’s what our goal has been pretty much all year,” head coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. “The competition is definitely a lot better this year.”

The team is almost identical to last year’s, with the exception of a runner or two, but the biggest change from last season is the team’s newfound confidence and ever-growing experience.

“It’s very comparable (to last season’s team), the only thing we have is we have one more year of experience then we had last year,” Rasmussen said. “We are a more seasoned group, I think we’re better off definitely in that aspect.

Junior Angela Bizzarri has been the bright light for the Orange and Blue since she joined the team, and the NCAA Championships has been the stage on which she’s thrived, becoming a two-time cross country All-American. Coming off of last season’s 14th-place finish, Bizzarri will look to lead the Illini once again.

“It’s really hard to set exact place goals, because you can’t really depend on the fields being even each year,” Bizzarri said of Monday’s NCAA Championships. “I’d like to be top 40, which is All-American.”

Senior Katie Engel has made huge strides since last year, often leading the Illini this season, and hopes to join Bizzarri on the list of Orange and Blue All-Americans.

“I’ve wanted to be in the top portion of the race, it’s been my goal to be All-American,” Engel said. “That was my goal at the beginning of the season, hoping for top 40, now I still want to get All-American, but I just want to be as close to first as I can.”

With the race just days away, Rasmussen has his eyes set on building a cross country dynasty for the Illini as they face their biggest meet of the season.

“Now the standard has to continued to be risen,” Rasmussen said. “The goal isn’t to make nationals now, the goal is to make sure we continue to be a top-10 team and hopefully, eventually, be a trophy team.”