Illini women’s cross country hits season goal, makes NCAA top 10 for 5th consecutive year

By Kyle Diller

From the beginning the Illinois women’s cross country had one goal in mind: to earn a fifth consecutive NCAA Championship top-10 finish.

And when the runners crossed the finish line and the points were totaled, the Orange and Blue found themselves in 10th place and their season objective achieved.

“I was very proud of them to show up on the day that was probably most important through the entire year and really be able to compete at the level we had trained at and knew we could have them run at,” head coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. “For them to be able to put it together on that specific day was really a testament of who they are and the hard work that they’ve put in.”

It was a long journey to get there, though, with many challenges along the way. Running in the rain at the Arboretum in Urbana, the Illini opened their season only managing to achieve a third-place finish.

But with two-time cross country All-American junior Angela Bizzarri and senior Katie Engel still not competing, the team had its big guns waiting in the wings for the important meets.

Unfortunately, the team lost one of its top three runners when Danelle Woods was redshirted due to injury. But the Illini found strength in the form of a newcomer.

Freshman Kristin Sutherland soon proved a revelation when in her collegiate debut at Illinois Intercollegiate Championships she finished first overall individually, leading the Orange and Blue to victory.

The team had a couple of disappointing results along the way, but toward the end of the season when the meets counted, Illinois excelled. The Illini finished fourth at the Big Ten Championships and second in the Midwest Regional Championships, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships.

“As a team I feel like we all came together and our training came together,” sophomore Chantelle Groenewoud said. “We managed to peak right at the right time, so when it mattered we did well.”

All the work of the strenuous season paid off though when they earned their fifth-consecutive top-10 finish, finishing ahead of all the teams in the Big Ten. Along with the accomplishment of their season goal, for the first time in school history two runners received All-American honors.

Bizzarri finished sixth, earning her a third cross country All-American title. Bizzarri finished as the front-runner for the Orange and Blue with a time 19 minutes, 59 seconds – the fastest 6k an Illini has ever run.

Engel also earned All-American honors in the final cross country meet of her career.

“It’s a great feeling,” Engel said. “It’s something I’ve been hoping for ever since I’ve been here and this year it was definitely one of my main things I’ve been focusing on all season, thinking about something I really wanted to do.”

The season can be summarized into a single word according to Rasmussen: streak. And after five consecutive top-10 appearances in the NCAA Championship, the word streak certainly seems fitting.