Cross country season preview: Illini look to build off past success, return to normal schedule

By Renato Arteaga, Staff Writer

Clunk after clunk. Cleat after cleat. Together they sound like a stampede of wildebeests running through a valley. They run through grassy fields and are elbow to elbow during this intense battle of endurance. They’re cross country runners, and this season is just around the corner.

The Illini cross country season having more than two meets this season is a sign that campus life is returning to some level of normalcy. This marks the first time in two years that the Illini will compete in regular season meets.

The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines limited the men’s and women’s cross country seasons to just two postseason meets: the B1G Championship and NCAA Championships.

Even with limited opportunities last year, the Illini showed signs of improvements and even managed to come out victorious with performances that qualified some runners for the NCAA Championships.

The pandemic forced last year’s postseason to start in January, and even this year’s schedule is unique since the Illini are scheduled to have six meets throughout September and October.

This season’s regular season home meet is scheduled for Oct. 22 at the UI Arboretum.

The EIU Walt Crawford Open will be the first regular season competition of the year and is on Sept. 3 in Charleston, Illinois. The Red Bird Invite takes place two weeks later, on Sept. 17, in Normal, which will have the Illini facing off against Illinois State.

The Illini were victorious the last time they competed at the EIU Walt Crawford Open during the 2018 season. The men’s team finished first overall out of six teams, while the women’s teams finished second out of five teams.

The Illini will compete in four meets during the month of October, including the Big Ten Championships on Oct. 29 in State College, Pennsylvania.

After big playoff performances from quite a few Illini during last season’s shortened season, it will be interesting to watch the Illini’s fight to achieve that same success during this season’s battles.

Sarah Haveman will be entering her fourth season as the men’s and women’s cross country head coach, and she already has an impressive postseason track record.

Both teams have shown signs of development every year since Haveman took the reins as head coach. The Illini’s overall finishes at the Big Ten Championship have improved every year since Haveman helped the men’s team place 10th and the women’s team place 12th during her coaching postseason debut in 2018.

This season is marking the return of a few upperclassmen runners for the men’s team, like graduate student Jon Davis and redshirt senior Irwin Loud, while also introducing a few new faces to the team, like freshmen Evan Cummins, Nicolas Dovalovsky and William Merrick.

The women’s team has a few key contributors from last season’s shortened playoff run returning for another chance to compete at the NCAA Championships, such as graduate student Rebecca Craddock, and even added eight new underclassmen to the team.

Craddock is returning for a fifth season after having stellar performances at last season’s Big Ten and NCAA Championships meets, where she placed ninth and 68th, respectively.

Graduate student Allison McGrath, along with seniors Ayah Aldadah and Emma Milburn, will also be returning this season, all of which finished in the top 20 overall during last season’s Big Ten Championship.

Last year, Haveman helped the women’s team rank No. 17 nationally and managed to coach them to postseason success against six other nationally ranked programs within the Big Ten.

The men’s team managed to finish sixth overall at last season’s Big Ten Championship postseason meet, where Davis finished second with a time of 24:01.8.

Davis was the only Illini from the men’s team to qualify for the NCAA Championships, and he finish 39th with a time of 30:46.3 during this competition, which was the first All-American honor for a male Illini cross country runner since Dylan Lafond in 2015.

This year, the NCAA Regional will be in Iowa City, Iowa and take place on Nov. 12, while the NCAA Championships will take place in Tallahassee, Florida on Nov. 20.

The Illini have about two weeks left before their regular season competition begins in Charleston. The time has yet to be determined, but Sept. 3 will mark the beginning of the Illini’s long journey toward reclaiming and improving upon all their postseason success from last year.

 

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