The next generation: Olivia Howell recognizes growing leadership role with Illinois cross country


Photo Courtesy of Illini Track & CX Instagram

Junior runner, Olivia Howell (288), runs with teammates Sam Poglitsch (281) and Ayah Aldadah at the ISU Red Bird Invite on Sept. 17. Howell has a consistent and successful season as being a top finisher in her races.

By Renato Arteaga, Staff Writer

The Illini cross country season is nearly a few weeks away from wrapping up, with only a few playoff matches remaining, including the NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships.

Both programs took home sixth place at their most recent meet, the Big Ten Championships, and three out of the top-five finishers for the men’s and women’s teams were upperclassmen athletes who will leave the program soon.

Of Illinois finishers, senior Emma Milburn and junior Olivia Howell placed 19th and 44th, respectively, in the Women’s 6k during the Big Ten race with times of 21:13.5 and 21:45.1, while graduate students Allison McGrath and Rebecca Craddock placed 41st and 56th with times of 21:37.4 and 21:54.7, respectively. 

On the women’s side, there are currently seven senior and graduate student-athletes out of 21 female runners on the roster that could potentially be leaving this offseason. 

This marks a crucial time for the next generation to learn as much as they can from the team’s current leaders to be fully prepared to take the torch for the 2022 season. 

The women’s team currently has four juniors, including Howell, who will be transitioning into new upperclassmen leadership roles on the team with so many departures taking place soon.

Howell recalled how the COVID-19 pandemic took away a big chunk of her sophomore year, so her transition from a freshman to a junior happened fairly quickly.

“All of a sudden I was an upperclassman,” Howell said. “I wouldn’t want to say that COVID messed up my career because I feel like I’ve definitely grown throughout that season. I had time to reflect on not just myself but on the team, and I feel like the team has really grown.” 

Regardless, Howell has shined when the pressure has turned up. Throughout the season, Howell has consistently finished as one of the top five finishers on the team in every Illini cross country race she has competed in.

One of Howell’s best races took place during the third meet of the season, the Joe Piane Invite, where she placed 59th as the Illini’s second finisher with a time of 17:10.1.

The Ohio native praised the team’s current leaders, such as Craddock and McGrath, for helping show her how to step up to the plate when they’re needed the most.

“This year I had to step up, especially with the large incoming freshman class we had,” Howell said. “I feel like I’ll be well prepared for next year, especially having leaders on the team like the fifth-years and seniors. They’ve been great examples of what I want to be for the team next year.” 

The women’s team has a boatload of young potential returning next year alongside Howell, including freshman Annalyssa Crain, who placed 17th as the Illini’s first finisher during the Big Ten race with a time of 21:11.0.

Howell praised Crain for her strong Big Ten performance and shared how she has taken note of how much determination and drive this freshman class has had since the beginning of the season. 

“Annalyssa recently had an amazing race,” Howell said. “I see great potential in the freshmen we have on the team. … I definitely saw it during the first day of practice. Everyone was just ready to get to the workouts and work together as a team.”

The team’s success this year can be credited to how strong their team chemistry is, which is something they plan on continuing to improve, Howell says. 

Howell shared this will be a key area she plans to teach the younger generation in the coming months and will continue to implement team dependency throughout practices and hard workouts.

“At the Big Ten meet, the most important thing is keeping an eye on a teammate, and no one else really matters in the race as long as we’re running for each other,” Howell said. “This sport is a huge team effort, and it’s much more important than what people realize. We definitely gain strength from each other to get past the hardest parts of the race.”

Looking forward to next season, Howell shared that she doesn’t have any individual goals in mind and just wants to continue to provide the consistency she’s displayed all season. 

She instead is much more focused on “helping the team beat the other team’s top five” and continuing to learn similar strategies that will help the team in the long run.

“That was one of the reasons why I came here,” Howell said. “I noticed how amazing the team chemistry was. Little things like pushing each other, encouraging teammates when they fall behind and celebrating everyone’s wins. When one person wins, we all do.”



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