Big chance for the Illini to succeed at conference championship

By Will Most

While Illinois’ young roster will likely find itself in this situation many more times, there is desire to be successful with this team right now.

“Everyone that is going to the line for us on Sunday at one point or another has shown themselves to be very good this fall,” Stewart said. “Everyone who is running is prepared and has run well.”

Northwestern will host the race at Sydney R. Marovitz Golf Course in Chicago, Illinois on Sunday. The Big Ten Championship is a unique race — the Illini get to run nine runners, allowing them to showcase their depth.

The group will be led by junior Dylan Lafond, who has run two races the whole season, resulting in top-10 finishes for both events. The team will be additionally led by senior Ian Barnett, who has confidence in the large lineup the Illini are running.

“We have a lot of people who can do a lot of things,” Barnett said. “I think all nine are competing for top five.”

Last season, the Illini finished sixth in the Big Ten, and Barnett is Illinois’ top returning runner — he finished in 24th, one spot behind former Illini Jannis Toepfer.

The Illini are the fifth best team in the Big Ten behind, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana, respectively. In previous meets, though, the Illini have bested all of these opponents but Michigan, and will be looking to repeat those successes on Monday.

“Indiana would be a really good test for us,” Barnett said. “If we were able to get in front of them that would be a really successful meet. And with Wisconsin struggling if we could get in front of them, that would be huge for us.”

Along with its depth, Illinois’ youth was its calling card this year, and with multiple freshmen running in the championship, it could play a key role in its success. Freshman Jesse Reiser has found himself in Illinois’ top five consistently, often in very competitive meets.

Beyond Sunday, the Illini have one more opportunity to prove that they are ready for the toughest national competition in the NCAA Championships. The NCAA Regional Championships will be held in Lawrence, Kansas, on Nov. 13. Last season the Illini finished fifth in the Regional, three spots out of qualifying for NCAA Nationals.

Until then, the Illini have to put together an excellent performance in the Big Ten Championships to prove they are one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Barnett likes that challenge.

“This weekend is a really good challenge for us,” Barnett said. “It allows us to beat some Big Ten teams that may put us in an even better season going into regionals, so we can make it to Nationals.”

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