Illini graduate students look forward to leadership roles, return to normal competition

Graduate+student+Allison+McGrath+runs+in+a+Championship+race.+McGrath+and+other+graduate+students+will+be+running+for+the+upcoming+season.

Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Graduate student Allison McGrath runs in a Championship race. McGrath and other graduate students will be running for the upcoming season.

By Renato Arteaga, Staff Writer

There are a few familiar faces that will be sticking out in the crowds during this year’s cross country regular season meets. 

COVID-19 postponed all 2020 regular season sports for a whole semester and hung a lot of graduating student-athletes’ futures in the air, but for some, it granted them another opportunity to add on to their legacy.

The beginning of this year’s cross country regular season is marking the return of a few graduate students on the men’s and women’s teams that will be racing for what could potentially be their final seasons.

Illini upperclassmen Jon Davis, Rebecca Craddock and Allison McGrath are all graduate students, but they will be tying their cleats and competing during this year’s cross country season after specular playoff performances during the shortened 2020 season.

Craddock and McGrath led the women’s team to a third-place finish at the Big Ten Championship, which helped them advance to the NCAA Championships for the fourth year in a row.

Davis was the only student-athlete from the men’s team to advance to the NCAA Championships after placing second with a time of 24:01.8 in the Big Ten Championship 8K event.

He went on to finish in 39th place with a time of 30:46.3 and earned All-American honors, which makes him the first Illinois male cross country runner to do so since 2015.

Fourth-year cross country head coach Sarah Haveman praised Davis for the impact he’s had on the men’s program throughout his career so far.

“It’s been special,” Haveman said. “Jon has found himself in a great groove and is coming along nicely. I’m very eager to see the next three seasons he has in front of him.”

After having none of the team’s training resources available to him, Davis reflected on the time he spent alone during the lockdown as a very valuable experience during his preparation for the shortened season.

“Growing up in high school, we had limited resources, so I always trained alone,” Davis said. “When everyone was on super lockdown, I had to channel that same energy. I think calling on those things from my past really helped.”

Throughout all his running career, none of the records, accolades and accomplishments have come easy for Davis.

He has dealt with long periods of rehabbing throughout his first four years due to stress fractures in his foot and femur, but he’s always managed to bounce back and provide historic performances for his team. 

Davis isn’t the only Illini that will have their name in the history books once everything is said and done.

As a freshman during the 2017 season, Craddock led the Illini in every meet she participated in, including the Big Ten Championships and NCAA Regionals.

Haveman also praised Craddock for how much of an impact she’s had on the women’s team, especially for leading them to four Big Ten Championships throughout her time with the program so far.

“Rebecca is rare,” Haveman said.  “It’s special to see her come along, enter a program and make it one of the most nationally relevant programs. All from how she leads and how she is as an athlete.”

McGrath shared the large amount of accomplishment as a special time in her career.

“We had a big freshman class, which made a majority of the team,” McGrath said. “We were inexperienced but made huge strides. We were very low in the regional standings freshman year, advanced to fourth place our sophomore year, made nationals our junior year and now we’re headed to our third championship in a row.”

Looking back at her freshman year experience, Craddock shared how important those lessons were for her development as a runner and as a leader for the women’s team. 

“Back then, I was coming to a top-tier Division I program and had to leave home, so I just had to be down here on my own and figure it out myself,” Craddock said. “I just feel much more comfortable and independent. I became someone the younger men and women can come to for help.”

For Davis, the amount of change he’s endured throughout his career is something he prides himself and recognizes the importance of.

He mentioned how much the program has evolved since his freshman year, as none of his freshman-year teammates are still on the team, there was a coach change and even a new track. 

“I’ve occupied a unique time span in the Illinois men’s cross country program from my freshman year to my sixth year,” Davis said. “There are certain lessons you learn from dynamic changes in six years that would usually take you 20 years to learn. I’ll always carry these lessons I’ve learned from navigating change.”

Having other individuals around her age, like Davis and McGrath, is something Craddock says she is grateful for, especially when it comes to changes regarding the future of the program.

“Allison and I have seen the team grow from 24th in the region to a national contender, so we grew very close,” Craddock said. “It’s nice to have familiar faces when we’re bringing in freshmen, teaching them right and having to be wise to teach them well.

McGrath credits Haveman for playing a huge role in her and Craddock’s development since their freshman year. 

“Looking back, we’ve made significant strides as runners and individuals,” McGrath said. “I’ve become more of a leader on the team as well as outside of running, like gaining more confidence from this experience.” 

As one of the leaders of her team this season, Craddock continues to stay focused on molding the program’s future in hopes of making sure they continue building what she’s helped start.

“We’ve grown our team culture a lot over the years, and everyone fits nicely into that,” Craddock said. “It’s something we look for when recruiting. We must make sure they get along, run for each other and understand they are a part of something bigger than themselves. 

Davis shared a similar sentiment when asked about what he is hoping to accomplish this season.

“I want to win another Big Ten title, which is tied to the team goal,” Davis said. “During my first year on the team, we made it to national meet for first time in 30 years, so that’s the one thing on our radar. I want to leave this program as good as I found it.”

[email protected]