Illini track prepares for Indoors

For Illinois men’s track and field head coach Wayne Angel, the trip to College Station, Texas, for the NCAA Indoor Championships this weekend will be bittersweet.

While Angel can take solace in sending senior Gakologelwang Masheto , seeded No. 1 in the 400 meters, and freshman Andrew Riley, seeded No. 3 in the 60-meter hurdles, there was one group he would’ve liked to see compete.

“I’m excited about the two guys that are going, but I’m kind of disappointed about the relay,” Angel said.

The men’s 4×400 meter relay just missed an invite to the Championships, finishing No. 12 in the nation as the top 11 teams received invites.

The number of invitations to the NCAA Track and Field Championships is not determined on an event-to-event basis but by total athletes competing in all events. With 18 total distance medleys automatically qualifying, it was unlikely the selection committee would take more than 11 4×400 meter relays.

Though Angel remained hopeful, the relay team’s chances were all but erased after 15 distance medleys automatically qualified last weekend.

“We were the last one not to get in, and you think about all the things you could do to change it, but that’s track and field,” Angel said.

While Masheto, a senior, will run for his third All-American honor, and Riley, a freshman, his first, Angel sees them as equally poised to do great things.

“Andrew (Riley) doesn’t compete like a freshman; he competes like a senior,” Angel said. “He’s definitely advanced for his age and his athletic ability. Masheto, what can I say about him, if things fall in place he could do some spectacular things. I don’t want to put pressure on any of them. I just want them to have fun, go out and race, relax and do what they do.”

No matter what happens, this will be Masheto’s last Indoor Championship appearance.

“To be a senior, it gives you motivation because this is your last year and you want to do well,” Masheto said. “You want to leave history behind.”

The Illini women will also mix NCAA Championship experience and youth, with three veterans and three newcomers in the lineup.

Senior Omoye Ugiagbe has competed in the 4×400 relay twice at nationals, while Deserea Brown, Ryisha Boyd and Melissa Bates will be making their first appearances. Women’s head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey hopes that the newcomers have fun and don’t feel the pressure of the national stage.

“I think for them, I just want them to go and enjoy themselves, have fun … do what they did to get them there, and I think they’ll do fine,” Buford-Bailey said.

Juniors Aja Evans and Angela Bizzarri round out the women competitors. Both have national experience and are in position to add more All-American accolades, with Evans the No. 6 seed in the shot put and Bizzarri the No. 10 seed in the 3,000 meters.

Bizzarri automatically qualified for nationals in the 3,000 meters on Feb. 7 and is thrilled now that she’ll be joined by several teammates.

“I was really excited this weekend that the 4×400 made it, and Aja improved her throw,” Bizzarri said. “I’m really excited there’s a big group of us, it makes it so much more fun.”

Bizzarri automatically qualified for both the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters but decided to focus on the 3,000 meters for nationals.

“I’ve kind of been training a little bit more toward the 3k this season, rather than the 5k,” Bizzarri said. “I really enjoy the shorter distances.”

The 3,000 meters is 15 laps around a 200-meter indoor track, compared to 25 for the 5,000.

“Well, shorter for me,” Bizzarri added.