Illinois men’s track and cross country teams perfect at home

Illinois redefined meaning of home field advantage this season. In four team competition home meets, the Illini men’s cross country and track and field teams were perfect, winning all four.

Illinois cross country opened its season in late August, hosting the Illini Open against Missouri. By securing first place for the 10th-straight year at the annual meet, the Illini set the precedence of perfection at home that would not be changed throughout the cross country and track seasonsmp.

After opening its season with a first place finish, the cross country team earned seventh place in the Roy Griak Invitational, but Illinois experienced many ups and downs in the following weeks. 

Head coach Jake Stewart’s runners struggled in a pair of meets in Louisville, Kentucky, and Madison, Wisconsin, to break a streak of finishes outside the top 10mp.

Illinois managed to bust out of the slump at the Big Ten Championships in November, finishing sixth out of 12 teams and qualifying for the NCAA Regional Championship.mp

“You move through the course of the cross country season just like any other season,” Stewart said. “Our group did a really good job during October in understanding that our end result would be to run our best in the last two opportunities in November.”

And the Illini did just that. Stewart’s runners captured fifth place at the NCAA Midwest Regionals in Peoria, Illinois — the team’s best finish in a multi-team competition that seasonmp.

“We ended up in fifth, only a couple of points behind the teams in fourth and third, and nearly qualified for nationals for the first time as a program in a long time,” Stewart said. “The expectations have changed to where we now believe that that has to be the norm.”

Early January marked the start of the indoor track and field season. Illinois opened its season with strong performances — and victories — against Iowa and Missouri. Seven days later, the team maintained its home dominance by winning the Illini Classic for a second-straight yearmp.

After the home meet, the Illini had a brief respite from team competition. Head coach Mike Turk’s squad resumed team competition at the Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational, a meet stacked with nationally-ranked rivals like Nebraska.

The regular season for indoor meets concluded with the Iowa State Classic and the Orange and Blue Open. True to form, Illinois recorded 15 top-10 performances at the meet in Ames, Iowa, and won the Orange and Blue open to cap the regular season.

Throughout the whole season, the Illini relied on the efforts of senior DJ Zahn, whose level of performance seemingly never faltered en route to leading his team to the NCAA Indoor Championshipsmp.

Illinois qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, after coming in second behind Nebraska at the Big Ten Championships. The Illini fell just short of their goal of finishing in the top 20 as they ended the meet in 23rd place.

Despite coming up just short of its ultimate goal, Illinois had a memorable indoor season filled with special moments.

“I have stickers on my water bottles from certain races that remind me of the little things I did,” Zahn said. “Big Ten’s (Championships) is where it all came together when I won the three events, especially after finishing second last year to one of my own teammates. That was the biggest highlight for me.”

Only days after competing at the NCAA Indoor Championships, Illinois began the outdoor season in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the UNLV Spring Invite on March 20, which they placed first in out of a field of 11.

Two weeks later, the team came back to win the EIU Big Blue Classic on the second day of the meet, placing first in six events.

The Illini continued their winning streak at their only home meet of the season, the Illinois Twilight, dominating the competition with 247 points, which was nearly double than second-place finisher EIU.

The team won the Hy-Vee Cup the third year in a row at Drake Relays, destroying the competition by getting nearly double the points of second-place finisher Alabamamp.

At the Musco Twilight, the final meet in the team’s regular season, two school records were broken. Zahn broke a two decade record in the 200 with a time of 20.53, beating Anthony Jones’ time of 20.62. senior Davis Fraker broke his own record, which he made earlier in the season, in the hammer throw, with a throw of 68.41 m.

Going into the Big Ten Championships just over a week away, the team remains undefeated, where the team hopes to have just as much success as they have had previously in the season.

“I know there are two teams that are going to put together really tough lineups for the meet: Nebraska and Penn State,” Turk said. “They’ll (Nebraska and Penn State) be ready to go, but so will our guys. I think it’s going to be a lot of a fun and a real battle between the top teams.”

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