Men’s track seeks fresh start after disappointing 2008 season

By Kevin Kaplan

The expectations that Gakologelwang Masheto has for the Illinois track and field team are simple.

“I’m hoping we can do better than last year,” Masheto said.

As the Illini travel to Lexington, Ky., for the Kentucky Invitational on Saturday, last season’s disappointments have not been forgotten. At Nutter Field House, Illinois will get its best chance thus far to wipe away memories of a ninth-place finish at the 2008 Big Ten Championships.

“We’re going to be facing every team in the SEC with the exception of Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State,” Illini head coach Wayne Angel said.

“Florida is probably one of the top teams in the country, they’ve got the number one recruiting class, so I would say that meet’s going to be formidable. We’re going to be able to find out our level of fitness there and find out what our competitive capabilities are against those other teams, so we’re excited about that,” Angel added.

Though the Illini have already experienced two indoor meets, the competition in Kentucky will be some of the best they will play all year.

“As a team, I expect a top-tier finish Big Ten indoor this season,” junior sprinter Gary Miller said.

Illinois will face five teams ranked in the USTFCCCA preseason top-25, including No. 4 Florida, No. 9 Louisville, No. 11 Kentucky, No. 16 South Carolina and No. 20 Georgia.

“We had the Iowa dual meet (last Saturday), and we didn’t really have everybody there, but, you know, there was some things that we need to tweak,” Angel said. “But the Kentucky meet, you’re competing against the cream of the crop and that meet is going to help us see where we’re at against the best competition in America, and what we have to do, if anything, to up our game to be ready for those guys at the National Championships.”

The Kentucky Invite will certainly be an excellent way for the Illini to gauge how they stand up to top-tier competition, and with many athletes returning from last year, this could be an Illini squad posed to make a comeback in the Big Ten.

“I think as a team we’ve matured. Distance-wise, we’re young. I think from the sprint side, middle distance, we’ve got a lot of senior leadership, so I expect a lot more out of those guys this year and I think those guys are going to step up,” Angel said.

The Illini will also benefit from a balanced field team led by senior pole-vaulter Andrew Zollner, who will search for his third straight trip to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2009.

After the Kentucky Invitational, the Illini will return to Champaign for their only home meet of the indoor season, the Carle/Health Alliance Invitational on Jan. 24.