Illinois adds depth, coins best regional ranking since 2012


Jonathan Bonaguro

The women’s cross country team kicks off its fall campaign on Friday. Both the women’s and men’s teams dominated the Illini Open.

By Meghan Rest, Sports Editor

After clawing back from the 24th-rank in the NCAA’s Midwest Region two years ago, the Illinois women’s cross country team opened its fall campaign sitting in the No. 4 spot, its best ranking since 2012. 

The team placed first in its first meet of the season at the Illini Open Aug. 30 – the Illini’s only home event of the fall. Junior Rebecca Craddock led the Illini and glided to an individual title in the women’s 5K, also registering a new personal record of 16:58.1, and was followed by freshman Emma Wilson and 2018 All-Region runner, sophomore Madison Marasco, who finished in second and third, respectively. 

Illinois’ recent success is due, in part, to a top-10-ranked recruiting class and consistent development over time. This year’s team is also diverse when it comes to experience, something the Illini lacked previous seasons.

“We’re finally at a place, with my time at Illinois, where we’ve found ourselves at the other end,” said head coach Sarah Haveman. “We’ve had the time to develop a couple of kids for multiple years, we’ve brought in high-level recruits and developed them. Then we signed a couple of impactful freshmen. We finally have a lineup that includes some upperclassmen, some juniors and then all the way down to freshmen. We finally have that good mix of experience and usability.”  

While the Illini Open proved to be an easy field of competition for Illinois, the team hasn’t been used to this level of success in the recent past. The shift upward not only came with development in runner’s abilities but also with a change in team culture. 

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    “The biggest indicator of how we’re headed in the right direction on the women’s side is just how we’re behaving culturally,” Haveman said. “The women respond very positively to one another; they truly bring out the best in each other. They make each other look better; they make each other race better.”

    Since assuming the role of both the men’s and women’s teams’ head coach in 2018, after being an assistant coach for one year, Haveman has ushered in a new era of team camaraderie. 

    “We’ve refrained from putting ourselves in any type of pecking order; there’s a respect for one another,” Haveman said. “If you look at what we’re able to do from just numbers — first year here we were 24th in the region, and last year we were fourth. We were the first team out of NCAAs last year. It’s really just a matter of the environment change and the cultural change — they’re a true team. They’re just truly connected in that way.”

    Despite changes off the course, Illinois is poised to take on four of the top-30 ranked teams in the NCAA at the Indiana State John McNichols Invitational, including No. 3 Washington, No. 8 Stanford, and Big Ten foes No. 4 Michigan and No. 28 Indiana. 

    The Indiana State course also home to this year’s NCAA Championship course — LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Indiana. Haveman said this weekend will give the Illini a taste of what it’s like to run on a championship course. 

    “It’ll be a nice, big dose of competition right away, but it’ll be nice to see the women navigate on the nationals course and see how we kind of stack up against those (ranked) teams right now,” Haveman said. 

    The women’s race will begin at 8:45 a.m. CT Sept. 21 in Terre Haute, Indiana, with the men’s race beginning at 8 a.m.


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