Illini cross-country ready to hit course after long break

The Illini men’s cross-country team will return to the racecourse this weekend for its first race in nearly a month.

The squad travels to Madison, Wis., on Friday for the Wisconsin adidas Invitational race, held on the 8K Thomas Zimmer course. The event will feature some of the top-ranked teams in the nation and will serve as Illinois’ first real opportunity to establish itself on both the national and Big Ten stages.

In their last race, the Illini took second place in the Orange and Blue Preview, where they competed against runners from Wisconsin and Michigan. First-year head coach Gavin Kennedy strategically scheduled four weeks off to ensure his runners the best opportunity to race at the front of the pack in the championship half of the season.

“They were still adapting to my training philosophy and style, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” Kennedy said. “I thought in three or four weeks they would kind of ramp things up in training, and it’s been going real well. I’m happy where everyone’s at and we’re just excited go get out there racing.”

For the majority of their time off, the Illini stuck to their early-season training of strength and aerobic work. Lately, however, the team has adjusted its training style to best prepare for more intense competition.

“Now, preparing for this next meet, we’re doing some shorter, quicker things to just get us sharper and quicker for the race,” senior Kyle Engnell said.

Engnell, along with fellow senior Jim Riddle, will be making his season debut Friday. Their return gives the team an experience advantage over many of the other teams, as four of the Illini’s top five runners are seniors.

“We’ve all been around the block a few times, we know what to do, we know what to expect,” Engnell said.

The level of competition at Friday’s event is much higher than the Orange and Blue have seen all season, but they’re not letting that affect their preparation or mindset.

“You only have so much mental energy that you can spend over three months of the cross-country season,” Kennedy said. “If you get too excited about this meet, Big Tens and nationals might be a disappointment for us.”

The invite will provide the Illini with a clear picture of how they can perform under pressure and against elite runners. It’s also the first opportunity Illinois has had to score points toward the crucial Big Ten and NCAA nationals meets.

“If we have a great race and beat a whole bunch of them, that could really help us out with some points,” senior Phil Pompei said. “And if we don’t, we’re going to know exactly what we need to work on to get to the next level.”

Because of the time off, the squad is anxious to get back out and compete. Just competing is not enough for the Illini, however. They want to turn some heads.

“I’m expecting a big performance,” Kennedy said. “We set a goal to come out swinging in this meet and that’s what we’re going to do.”