?Illini men’s cross-country look to continue strong season

By Will Most

After the Illinois men’s cross country team slowly realized that they had taken second in the Big Ten Championship, the joy spread across the team’s faces was evident. 

Suddenly, the team’s season — a promising one, but one with no big wins — had an entirely different spin. The Illini’s young roster had shown up and now resembles one of the best teams Illinois has seen in recent memory. If Illinois doesn’t deliver another great performance, the team’s season might be over.

“I feel the same about the team that I have going into every meet,” said head coach Jake Stewart. “I think that has been a big key to our progression through the course of season, having the same expectations going into every meet we’ve competed in.”

The University of Kansas hosts the Midwest Regionals in Lawrence, Kansas, on Friday at 1 p.m. The Regional Championships should prove to be an entirely different beast for the Illini to tackle as they prepare to run their first competitive 10,000 meter race against even tougher competition than they found in the Big Ten Championship.

The Midwest region has one team that historically dominates: Oklahoma State. In the last 10 years, Oklahoma State, who is ranked sixth in the NCAA, has taken first place eight times. This year it looks to continue that trend after its eighth-consecutive first-place finish in the Big 12 Championships, a race in which it had five runners place in the top ten.

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    “Oklahoma State might be a little bit out of grasp, but it would be no stretch of the imagination for us to get second,” said senior Ian Barnett. “Even with getting second, we are beating Tulsa, Iowa State or Minnesota, all really good teams.”

    Beyond Oklahoma State, Tulsa, which is ranked No. 14 in the most recent poll, should be neck and neck with an Illinois team that has proven it can transcend the rankings and defeat higher ranked opponents. 

    For the first time this season the Illini have a ranking of their own, 19th.

    Along with the race’s increased difficulty, there are a couple of significant rule changes that will affect Illinois on Friday. Namely, the Illini will only be able to run seven men, as opposed to the nine that they were allowed last weekend. 

    Another major change is how a team progresses to the next event. The Midwest represents one of nine regions, and the top two teams from each regional championship get an automatic bid to the National Championships. Beyond those 18 teams, other teams are let in based on their performance throughout the season. While Illinois has fallen short before, senior Ian Barnett feels confident this is the year.

    “I’ve been here three other years, and this is the one year that I’ve come expecting to go to the national championships,” Barnett said. “We know we are ready to do it. It’s not a reach for us to get there.”

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