Familiar faces stick around women’s cross country team

There was usually a trickle of orange and blue seen crossing the finish lines of the last women’s cross country season.

But the Illini know that if they want to be successful this year, they can’t have those scattered finishes.

“Years past, we’ve had Angela (Bizzarri) up front,” Illini head coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. “We knew we had a low stick. We had Kristin (Sutherland), who came in right away, then we had one after the other. This year, we’re going to be a lot better if we can truly run as a pack.”

Running in a pack may prove difficult for the Illini, who, with six upperclassmen and 17 underclassmen, consist mostly of young and inexperienced runners. They’ll also be on the course without Bizzarri, who is still with the team as an undergraduate assistant coach.

Besides 2009 national champion Bizzarri, Illinois is without Elizabeth Boyle and Danelle Woods, who failed to make a comeback after her injury last season.

All in all, it will be a challenge for Illinois to maintain its status as a Big Ten frontrunner — the Illini fell just short of first place in the conference in 2009 — and a top-15 team in the nation.

“For me, because it’s such a young team, it’s going to be hard to put exact numbers on (our goals),” Rasmussen said before the team left for its annual preseason camp.

Prior to the start of the school year, the team spent four days in Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Ill.

“We do our runs and our workouts there, and then we get cabins and do team building activities,” Sutherland said prior to the team camp. “We greet each other, get to know each other, talk, hang out.”

With a different team this season, the camp was helpful in cushioning the transition for the new faces as well as helping the team refocus on what is to come this season.

“They sat together and went through a lot of goals, and then I came in after they were done and we discussed their goals,” Rasmussen said. “One of my thoughts going into it is that it would be really interesting to see where the group thinks they’re at. By the time we (coaches) walked in and they went through the list of things that they said, we were pretty much right on point with each other, which was great. Sometimes you walk in and you have no idea what they’re thinking. But for us, we were on the exact same page and we discussed things in much more detail.”

Though the team doesn’t have a dominant front pack as it did last season, the goals are the same — a top-three finish in conference and a successful appearance at nationals — but with a new approach.

“If Kristin is up front and everyone else is packing right behind her and running together,” Rasmussen said. “If we can do that, then we’re definitely going to be good by the end of the year, but it’s going to take some time to be able to get used to that since we haven’t done it in the past.”

Bizzarri and Boyle attended the camp, even though they don’t have eligibility to run this season. They will instead be sticking around to help the team in training.

“Team goals are their own; I’m not going to help them set their own goals,” Bizzarri said. “I think they can continue to improve throughout the season, and I’m really excited to see that especially because there’s a lot of new people coming in.”