Riley hoping for 4-peat hurdles title at Big Tens

For the Illini men’s track and field squad, its work that began in the fall will come to head this weekend.

Illinois travels to Lincoln, Neb., this weekend to compete in the Big Ten Indoor Championships. The meet is the culmination of the team’s indoor season and will prove to be a challenge, as half of the teams in the Big Ten are currently ranked in the USTFCCCA Top 25. Three-time defending champion Minnesota holds the No. 8 spot, followed by No. 11 Indiana, No. 13 Ohio State, No. 15 Nebraska and No. 18 Penn State.

“It kind of comes down to realizing that you’re as good as anyone else,” Illinois head coach Mike Turk said. “You put the work in just like they have, you’ve been trained smart, and you’re ready to run and perform.”

The Illini had a disappointing seventh-place finish at Big Tens last season, but they feel confident that certain aspects of their team have greatly improved since then. In particular, the distance squad has had increased success under Gavin Kennedy, now in his first year at Illinois, both during the cross-country and indoor track seasons.

“What they’ve done has been huge for us, and it’s a huge step for our program,” Turk said. “Obviously we’re looking at the future and what we’re doing with establishing a culture and expectations, and that event group is a big part of that, so we’re really happy with what they’ve done.”

For the Illini, their biggest star for the past four seasons has been senior Andrew Riley. Last season, he scored 16 of the team’s 57 points at the Big Ten Championships, including his third consecutive victory in the 60-meter hurdles.

“For me, its just about contributing to the team,” Riley said. “I’m not the guy for individual stuff, I’m more of a team guy. So this week is just about going out and scoring points for the team.”

Youth has played a big role in the Orange and Blue’s success this season. Freshmen Brandon Stryganek and D.J. Zahn have put up impressive performances on the track this season, and sophomore Cody Klein has led the way for the field events with his performances in the pole vault.

“We’re going to be looking at the middle distance area and see who steps up in that area, we’re also going to be looking to our young guys,” Turk said. “We’ve got Brandon Stryganek, D.J. Zahn and Brandon Tanthavong. Out of those guys, who’s going to step up there will really be the key to our team’s finish.”

Nebraska’s Devaney Indoor Track Center is one of the most state-of-the-art facilities in the country. In addition to the venue, the competition and national attention this meet will receive has the team ready to finally put forth the performance it’s been training for since August.

“Coming to a conference championship it’s all about mental preparation, because you’ve been practicing since the fall,” Riley said. “So there’s nothing you can do right now other than staying mentally tough and ready for it.”