Four runners named All-Big Ten as women’s cross country finishes second

The Illini women’s cross country team fell just short of adding its first conference title into the record books when it competed at the Big Ten Championships on Sunday at University Park, Pa.

Although the Illini didn’t accomplish their goal, junior Ashley Thompson described the team’s emotions as “satisfied” and “ready to move on” with regionals and nationals down the road.

“We were hoping to get first, but at the same time everyone ran really well, and I think we’re just excited that we had a really solid performance,” senior Angela Bizzarri said.

In a close race, Illinois finished in second with 77 points, six points behind first-place finisher and host Penn State. But it was just enough to knock two-time defending champion Minnesota (80 points) down to third.

The Illini haven’t been this close to a conference championship since 2005, when they also came in second. Last season, the Orange and Blue finished fourth.

Although there was no taste of victory, the Illini did walk away with strong performances from their top four finishers, who all finished in the top 15 and made Illini history. It was the first time in the program for Illinois’ top four to earn All-Big Tens honors.

Bizzarri stayed at the head of the pack and took an overall runner-up finish. She also paced the 6K course in 20:10, but couldn’t catch up to Penn State’s individual champion Bridget Franek, who finished seven seconds ahead of Bizzarri.

“About two and a half miles, Angela and Bridget kind of separate out, and they battled pretty much all the way until probably about 500 to go and Bridget moved away,” coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. “Obviously it’s a tremendous help and a tremendous asset to have somebody like Angela not only on our team, but (in) our program.”

Sunday’s second-place finish was the highest Big Ten finish Bizzarri had throughout her collegiate career. It also added to her string of first-team All-Big Ten honors as she became the first Illini runner to collect four consecutive honors.

Following Bizzarri were sophomore Kristin Sutherland, senior Elizabeth Boyle and junior Chantelle Groenewoud, who finished overall in seventh, 11th and 13th with times of 20:41, 21:00 and 21:02, respectively. Suthlerland, along with Bizzarri, earned first-team All-Big Ten, while Boyle and Groenewoud were named second-team All-Big Ten.

The downside for Illinois was the 31-placement gap between its fourth and fifth place finishers, which deeply impacted the Illini’s scoring.

“Obviously, it’s something we knew was going to be an issue going into the meet, and being able to put our (top) four in the top 13, and wait a while for our fifth to come in definitely wasn’t the most ideal situation,” Rasmussen said.

Junior Ashley Thompson finished fifth for the team, but 44th overall, in 21:58.

Despite the late finish, Thompson, who competed in her first Big Ten Championships race, set a 6K personal record and is one who has stepped in for a team who has battled injuries and sicknesses throughout he season.

“You can’t ask anything more of Ashley or anybody else,” Rasmussen said. “We’re still making. Two weeks ’til regionals, we’re going to be a little bit better, but three weeks until nationals, we’re going to be even better.”

With the Big Ten Championships behind them, the Illini now have two weeks before they take on regionals and nationals down the road. And this allows enough time for Illinois to work on closing that gap.

“Obviously, we’re not overjoyed with the outcome, but our plan is to beat all the Big Ten teams at nationals, and I really think we can do that,” Thompson said.