Illinois women’s cross-country takes third at Illini Challenge


Wenyuan Chen

Denise Branch leading the team during the women’s cross-coutry Illini Challenge. The challenge was held at the UI Arboretum on Friday, September 2, 2016. As one of the three Fighting Illinis to place in top 10, Denise led the way in fifth place.

By Mike Gasick, Assistant sports editor


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Denise Branch toed the starting line of the Illini Challenge next to six other upperclassmen on the Illinois team.

She was joined by juniors Audrey Blazek, Valerie Bobart and Robin Manarik and seniors Amanda Fox, Kim Seger and Megan Lemersal.

After the course official shot the starting gun, Branch got off to a nice start. She remained in the front pack of runners for the first mile, not allowing anyone to pass her.

As the race progressed, Branch was able to stay in the pack and cruise into the third mile with the top runners in the race.

“(Head coach Scott Jones) said in the last 300 meters, don’t let anyone pass you at the end, be the passer,” Branch said.

Seger and Bobart were not far behind, but Northwestern’s Aubrey Roberts and Sarah Nicholson began to pull away in the second mile. The Wildcats’ freshmen duo would not give up much ground, finishing the race one and two, respectively.

Northwestern won the Illini Challenge with a score of 36 points. Northern Illinois finished in second place behind the Wildcats, notching a score of 41 points. The Illini finished third out of the three teams, posting a score of 45 to commence the season.

Jones said the race was a nice way to ease into the season.

“We will see a lot of fluctuation from meet to meet, who actually winds up finishing our top runner,” Jones said. “I think the strength of our team is that we have five or six runners who are almost interchangeable parts.”

Senior Hanna Winter was held out of the race due to a coach’s decision. Jones said he wants Winter to have a few more practices to ensure she is fully healthy and prepared to begin the season. If Friday’s race was the Big Ten Championships, Jones noted she would have been out there ready to compete.

Branch said that with the team’s large amount of experience, she expects many of the upperclassmen to emerge as leaders throughout the season.

When healthy, it is expected that those leaders can be used as mentors to the freshmen who also competed in the race. Charlotte Nawor was the first freshman to cross the finish line for the Illini. Grace Rogers, Diane Lipa and Julia Schultz were next for Illinois to complete the race, respectively.

The Illini will be back in action Sept. 9, when they compete in the Country Financial ISU Invite in Bloomington, Illinois.

“I believe the team has the capability to be the best team that we’ve had in the past few years,” Branch said. “Each meet we have to work together and push each other in practice so when it comes to race time, it’s not foreign to us.”