Illini track falls short of expectations at Indoors

On Sunday, two different Illinois track and field teams found their strengths in two different areas, but ultimately, each left the Big Ten Indoor Championships with the same feelings of disappointment.

The Illini women went to Bloomington, Ind., hoping that their depth would help them stay within striking distance of favorites Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State. But they finished fifth.

“I was disappointed because I thought we could finish fourth,” women’s head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said. “I figured that the three that were in the top three would be there, but Indiana just performed well at home. That’s pretty much it; we had to be on top of our game in order to beat the home team, and we didn’t do it.”

While Illinois is a young team, Buford-Bailey said it was the seniors that failed to step up.

“What happened is our upperclassmen let us down,” Buford-Bailey said. “Our young people really went out and fought well and did really well. It was pretty much our upperclassmen, our seniors, that didn’t score any points.”

Four out of five Illini individuals that qualified for finals in at least one event were underclassmen.

While the team was carried by mostly freshmen and sophomores, junior Angela Bizzarri showed some leadership, placing second in the 3,000 meters and fourth in the 5,000 meters.

Bizzarri’s time of 16 minutes, 7.50 seconds in the 5,000 meters automatically qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships. It was a fast race all around, with four automatic-qualifying times and four provisional-qualifying times.

“For me it was just another step leading up to Indoor Nationals which eventually leads to outdoors,” Bizzarri said.

Bizzarri was happy with her younger teammates’ performances, even though the team as a whole did not meet its goal.

“There were definitely some good performances and definitely some bad,” Bizzarri said. “I personally try to look at the good performances and get excited for those and hopefully we’ll have some more of them.”

While it was mainly underclassmen that stepped up for the women, the Illinois men’s track and field team encountered mostly the opposite, with a few veteran runners scoring many of its points.

The Illini men were hoping to place in the top-five in the Big Ten, but finished seventh. After scoring just two points on Saturday, the men posted three event champions on Sunday, two of which were experienced upperclassmen.

With less depth than the women, the Illini men wouldn’t have had any chance if their leaders didn’t perform well. Junior Gary Miller, in the 600-meter dash, and senior Gakologelwang Masheto, in the 400-meter dash, each left State College, Penn., as Big Ten Champions. “Both of them had the maturity,” men’s head coach Wayne Angel said. “They executed the plan well and now they’re Big Ten Champions.”

If Angel is taking away anything from the weekend’s Championships, it is the knowledge of how close his team was to achieving a top-five spot. Numerous Illini missed going to event finals by one place, and that could help motivate the men to come out stronger in the outdoor season.

“It’s very encouraging that they were that close to scoring, we had about three-four athletes that were ninth that were in a position to score,” Angel said. “I know that they know that they can do it, that’s the positive thing.”

Masheto saw improvement at the Indoor Championships, and he said he hopes that his team will keep it up as it moves closer toward the outdoor season.

“We still have young guys, it seems like they are improving every time they run,” Masheto said.

One young Illini to look out for is freshman Andrew Riley, who won the 60-meter hurdles in a school-record 7.72 seconds.

The Jamaican is one of a few Illini looking toward the NCAA Indoor Championships on March 13 and 14.