Men’s, women’s track compete as one at Big Ten Championship

The Big Ten Indoor Championships will be Illinois’ only indoor meet competing as a team in an otherwise individual sport. Both the men’s and women’s track and field head coaches are spending this week making sure that their athletes keep that in mind.

“We compete most of the year as individuals, and now we ask that we go to this meet and think about your team and not yourself,” women’s head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said. “I think as a coach that’s the biggest goal, to try to put that into the minds of the athletes that ‘It’s not about you this weekend, it’s about your team.'”

The message is not lost on women’s distance runner Angela Bizzarri, who scored points in two events in last year’s Indoor Championships, as she prepares for Saturday to Sunday’s women’s meet in Bloomington, Ind.

“It’s really fun because your whole goal is to get as many points as you can,” Bizzarri said. “Sometimes at other meets it’s about getting good times and not necessarily places, but this is all about getting as many points as you can for the team.”

While the women’s schedule will not be finalized until Friday, it’s likely that Bizzarri will run multiple distance events at the Indoor Championships. For that reason, she is one of a few athletes who will need to pace herself to do well in multiple events.

“You have kids that want to qualify for nationals and get on the provisional lists, so it’s hard for them to think about running a lot of events and doing whatever it takes for the team when you have those individual goals set as well,” Buford-Bailey said.

While Bizzarri has already provisionally qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in the mile and automatically qualified in the 3,000 meters, there are other athletes who will compete in multiple events who have yet to accomplish such individual feats.

However, their burden is significantly lessened by the Illinois women’s depth. Buford-Bailey noted that the team is not spread thin, as they have freshmen who can each carry the load in sprinting events as well as distance.

The ability to field fresh athletes should help the women greatly at the Indoor Championships, and it’s an advantage that is absent on the Illinois men’s side.

Junior Jacob Nachel, who will run the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, will most likely be the Illinois men’s only distance runner competing in an individual event at the Indoor Championships. While the Illinois men’s team’s strength this season has always been in its sprinting, it doesn’t possess the depth of the Illini women, which will require its best runners to compete in multiple events.

Though Illinois men’s head coach Wayne Angel knows it is unlikely his team will win the Big Ten, he still has high expectations for the weekend when his squad travels to the men’s meet at State College, Penn.

“We know it’s going to be tough,” Angel said. “We know that Minnesota and Michigan are going to be the favorites, but three, four, five and six, there’s so much parity amongst those teams that if somebody makes a mistake and then somebody else steps up, anybody can be third, fourth, fifth.”

Angel will be expecting a lot from his relatively small team, and he believes they are ready to deliver.

“These kids are mentally tough, and they’ve just got to be ready physically to do what they need to do,” Angel said. “We’re talking about the four dimensions – mind, body, spirit and character. Those are going to be the things that catapult us into the area of being a top-five team,” he added.

Men’s middle-distance runner Gary Miller will need to show leadership at the Indoor Championships, as he will be running in three events.

“It’s a lot of pressure on your back, (you must) understand you have a job to do, you must get your points and get your places, but at the same time it’s going to be a fun time,” Miller said.

The junior is optimistic about the Illini’s effort in a true team setting.

“Track is an individual sport for the most part,” Miller said. “During the season you meet together with your teammates and cheer them on, and you feel camaraderie among everyone else. But a meet like this, it’s all about one thing: how your team places overall. I think our team will do well. I think we have a lot of new additions this year and a lot of guys that might step it up and place. I’m much more optimistic this year than I was last year going into the meet.”

Miller noted one bit of added motivation as well.

“A lot of guys are talking trash this year,” Miller said. “I look forward to beating them and having a good time.”