Illini women’s distance runners lace up for season debut

Junior+Alecia+Beckford-Stewart+runs+the+60-meter+hurdle+at+the+2009+Carle%2FHealth+Alliance+Invite+at+the+Armory+on+Jan.+24%2C+2009.+Erica+Magda%0A

Junior Alecia Beckford-Stewart runs the 60-meter hurdle at the 2009 Carle/Health Alliance Invite at the Armory on Jan. 24, 2009. Erica Magda

By Kevin Kaplan

Starting Friday, the Illinois women’s track and field team will compete in two different meets with two different sets of expectations. In the Rod McCravy Invitational at Lexington, Ky., Illinois head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey is hoping for more of the same: more success. In Notre Dame’s Meyo Invitational at South Bend, Ind., she won’t quite know what to expect, but she’ll have an idea.

The Meyo Invitational is one of the biggest indoor races in the country, and it is the place where most of Illinois’ highly regarded distance squad will make its season debut. Buford-Bailey is expecting a fast start for the distance squad, led by junior All-American Angela Bizzarri, who will run the 3,000 meters.

“If training is going as well as we think it is, then even without having prior races, I think they’ll do fine,” Buford-Bailey said.

Illinois distance coach Jeremy Rasmussen cited recovery from a grueling cross country season as the reason for the delayed start.

“I wanted to make sure that we’ve got a little bit of training under our belt and feel like they can go out and compete well right away,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen believes that Bizzarri, who ended her last race with a sixth-place finish at the 2008 NCAA Cross Country Championships, will benefit not only from the time off but also a relatively light workload at the Meyo Invitational. Last year, Bizzarri’s only indoor 3,000-meter race came an hour after competing in the mile-run preliminaries at the Indoor Big Ten Championships. This weekend, she will run it completely fresh.

Despite high expectations, it still is the first meet of the season, and Rasmussen knows there will be plenty of work to be done once the meet is over.

“We’re going to learn where we’re at,” Rasmussen said. “Obviously they’re working out well, but as far as race shape, we’re going to be able to figure things out and make a few adjustments for next week.”

RACE TO WATCH: 3,000 meters. Angela Bizzarri is making her season debut after finishing runner-up in the 5,000 meters at last year’s NCAA Outdoor Championships.