Unified training produces breakthrough season for women’s team

By Ashleigh Lefevre, Contributing Writer

The Illinois women’s cross country team has had a turn-around season — it finished in the top 5 every meet except for the Big Ten Championships last week.

The stats speak for themselves, and the women have seen a steep rise in their USTFCCCA Midwest regional rankings from 24th last season to a ninth-place rank.

According to the team, a shift in training could be responsible for this season’s improvement.

Team training that focuses on cohesion rather than individual success may be the answer to the Illini’s ability to perform come race day.

“This year, there has not been one situation where someone on the team has had to train alone, which we saw a lot of last year,” said head coach Sarah Haveman. “Everybody has a training partner or a training group.”

The Illini women have managed to put their top five runners across the finish line within a minute of each other every single race so far. In some races, it’s been less than 30 seconds.

“One thing we have really worked on this year compared to last, now that we have the personnel and depth to do it, is to have quicker splits between one through five,” Haveman said.

And this is a goal her team has been able to achieve.

In their first meet of the season at the EIU Walt Crawford Open, there were only 25 seconds between first and fourth Illini finishers.

Five races later, at the Illini Open, the Illini managed to establish themselves as a unified force in a sport that is typically characterized as an individual one. There were just 27 seconds separating their first and fifth across the line.

“We definitely try to pair up and work with each other during races, because I feel like it’s a lot easier to push yourself in a race when there is someone there with you,” said sophomore Allison McGrath.

McGrath, in particular, has found another teammate on the course in almost every meet of the season.

Finishing just two seconds behind fellow sophomore Nicki Cast in the Commodore Classic and 0.6 of a second in front of sophomore Rebecca Craddock at the Loyola Lakefront Invitational, McGrath said  the connection they have on race day is a product of the team chemistry they’ve developed during workouts.  

“For most of the season I ran with Nicki Cast and Emma Milburn, and recently I have been running with Rebecca (Craddock),” McGrath said. “I guess running as a pack during workouts makes it easier to do that in a race, as it feels more natural to run with a teammate.”

While the Big Ten Championships didn’t go as planned for the Illini — who finished 12th out of 14 schools — their strong team dynamic prevailed despite less-than-ideal circumstances.

In a sea of 125 runners at the Championships, the Illini were still able to find each other. Fellow sophomores and training partners Craddock and McGrath were once again running in unison, crossing the finish line 43rd and 44th, respectively, with just four seconds separating the pair. Freshmen Emma Milburn and Mikaela Lucki were separated by just two seconds.

Regardless of the results, the Illini know who they are as a team and how they approach competition.

And for Haveman, consistency is key.

“They build upon each other during races — they are able to find each other and bring out the best in each other,” Haveman said.

It’s something Haveman continues to emphasize as they prepare for last two races of the season — the NCAA Midwest Regional and the NCAA Championships.

“(As) opposed to being five individual runners out there with really big splits between our one through five, our goal will be to keep gearing toward our strength as a group to execute on race day,” Haveman said. 

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