Illinois men's cross country make waves to start October

B.+Magnesen%28290%29%2C+Z.+Smith%28293%29%2C+A.+Gold%28287%29%2C+G.+Lee%28289%29%2C+D.+Lathrop%28288%29%2C+and+J.+Atchison%28284%29+crossing+the+finish+line+together+ahead+of+the+other+teams+at+the+Illini+Challenge+2015+at+the+Arboretum+on+September+4.

Jovanie De La Cruz | The Daily I

B. Magnesen(290), Z. Smith(293), A. Gold(287), G. Lee(289), D. Lathrop(288), and J. Atchison(284) crossing the finish line together ahead of the other teams at the Illini Challenge 2015 at the Arboretum on September 4.

By Will Most

For the Illinois men’s cross-country team, the month of October presents an opportunity to step up against top-ranked competition for the first time this season.

At the Greater Louisville Classic on Saturday, the Illini did just that, placing fifth in a talented field, and second among Big Ten teams at the meet, ahead of No. 4 Wisconsin. Junior Dylan Lafond lead the way, taking sixth in the field of 200 and logging the 10th-fastest 8,000 meters in Illinois history.

“Dylan put himself right in the thick of it early on,” head coach Jake Stewart said. “He got his season off to as good of a start as you could hope for. It’s probably the best cross country race he’s ever had.”

Lafond, an All-American in the steeplechase, ran his first competitive race since 2013 after having a season-ending injury in 2014. While Lafond’s debut certainly played a key role in Illinois’ success, several other top runners placed highly in the competitive field. Senior Ian Barnett, freshman Jesse Reiser and redshirt freshman Billy Magnesen finished 27th, 32nd and 33rd respectively.

Iona College finished first in the team standings. Of the Big Ten teams competing, then-No. 10 Michigan placed second, the Illini were fifth, Wisconsin was seventh and Penn State finished eighth.

“It was the first big test for us this season,” Stewart said. “We did pretty well handling it. We knew this was the beginning of four big meets coming up for us. We wanted to build a little bit of momentum moving forward and I think we did a pretty good job doing that.”

Looking at the ‘Blue race’ and looking forward

Illinois’ usual leading man, junior Sean Pengelly, placed 51st. Additionally, senior Paul Zeman and redshirt freshman Zack Smith trailed Pengelly and closed the race for the Illini with 61st and 69th place, respectively. Despite taking fifth in a competitive field, the runners think that the team got off to a slow start and need to improve in coming meets.

“Ideally we would be closer together,” Barnett said. “Sean’s been dealing with sickness lately and he still ran really well considering everything that was going on with him.”

Beyond the main competition, the Greater Louisville Classic held a “blue race” where redshirt freshman Dan Lathrop and senior Liam Markham ran, both with positive results, as they each placed in the top five.

As the Illini put the Greater Louisville Classic in its rearview mirror, they have to look pretty far ahead to see their next competition. On Oct. 16 Illinois will attend both the adidas Wisconsin Invite and the Bradley Classic. The break will give the team ample time to prepare for its trip to Madison, which should be even tougher than its last meet proved to be.

“I just want to put myself in a position where we have an opportunity to be a top twelve team,” Barnett said. “I definitely want to be much closer to where Dylan is. I want to have him in my sight.”

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