Women’s cross country adds new chapter to record book in “challenging” and “rewarding” season

’Tis the season to add a new chapter in the Illinois women’s cross country record book.

From personal bests to national bests, the Illini had a season to remember, racking up performances that will set standards and aspirations for next season.

The Illinois program crowned its first female national champion when Angela Bizzarri took home the gold at the NCAA National Championships.

In the best season of her career, the eight-time All-American senior also won the Midwest Regional Championship and Pre-Nationals and took second overall at the Big Ten Championships, all of which were her best career places. She also became the first Illini to garner First Team All-Big 10 and All-Region all four years.

“As a leader of our team, it’s gotten to the point that people aren’t wowed with having Angela on our team,” cross country coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. “She’s just one of 24. Now they try to aspire to be like Angela, and that’s really the biggest thing because Angela does what she needs to do to be successful and they all see that in her.”

Along with Bizzarri, senior Elizabeth Boyle, junior Chantelle Groenewoud and sophomore Kristin Sutherland composed a strong front pack that helped Illinois run around some unexpected twists in the season.

All four earned All-Big Ten honors, which was a first in the program’s history.

Several athletes expected to run in the team’s top seven were held back due to injuries, including sophomore Danelle Woods and seniors Theresa Brokaw and Stephanie Baliga. Those losses left the Illini struggling to find a solid fifth runner at times, but the team still didn’t slow down.

“In the last few years, everything we’ve hoped for and wanted had just kind of fallen into place for us,” Rasmussen said. “I think that this year, we’ve really learned a lot because we’ve had to deal with things we haven’t had to deal with in the past, and I think it’s been a stronger group and better group.”

Illinois came close to winning its first-ever Big Ten title, taking second behind Penn State on Nov. 1. The Illini then finished second at the NCAA Midwest Regionals, earning an automatic bid to nationals.

The Illini entered the season looking to improve upon their 10th-place finish in 2008 at the NCAA National Championships. They hoped to remain one of the top 10 teams in the nation for the fifth consecutive season but instead finished 12th.

Despite the shortfall, The Illini said there were positives to take away from the experience.

“At nationals, we were ranked 16th and came in 12th, so that’s better than we were expected to do, which is always a good thing,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland finished 41st at nationals, but still remains hopeful for next season, when the team will likely return five of seven runners who competed this year at nationals.

For Bizzarri, there’s one piece of advice she would pass on. It’s something that took her four years to learn.

“When it comes to running, you have to have a lot of patience,” Bizzarri said. “Not everything is going to work out exactly how you want it to. Not every race is going to be your best race. There’s always going to be ups and downs. But at some point you’re going to get where you want to be. It might not be in the time span you want to set.”

To sum up the season, Rasmussen chose his words carefully.

“It was a very challenging season but very rewarding season,” Rasmussen said. “Going into the season, we had very certain goals and aspirations to meet them and try to get to, but this is the first year in the last three years that I’ve been here for cross country that we’ve had some things not go our way. To be quite honest as a coach it’s been more rewarding to continuously do well and have the success that we’ve had this.”Elizabeth