Familiar faces stick around to help women’s cross country in transition year

Don’t be surprised to see the 2009 National Champion still running around with the Illinois women’s cross country team.

Angela Bizzarri, a senior last season, ran her last cross country race and achieved the highest individual honor any college runner can dream of. Along with her official exit, the Illini lost a great portion of Bizzarri’s fellow seniors, who helped make Illinois a threat from the Midwest.

Once a savvy-upperclassman group, the Illini are now composed mainly of underclassmen and have gone from a top-10 contender to one looking to build upon its young talent. And though Bizzarri’s collegiate race days may be over, she, along with Elizabeth Boyle — who is still eligible for track and field — hope their presence helping the team can leave a lasting impression on the younger Illini.

“I always want our upperclassmen, those that continue to be around our program, to really be able to show the freshmen or younger group what it takes to be successful,” cross country coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. “If we can instill that in the young ones early, then it’s going to give them that fire, that passion to get better and better, and that’s really going to help us in the overall picture.”

Last season, Bizzarri and Boyle composed part of the Illini’s top running group, helping Illinois come close to its first Big Ten title and finishing 12th in the nation. Bizzarri and Boyle may no longer be competing for the team, but they do nearly everything with the team, including the 5 a.m. runs and afternoon workouts.

They even attended the preseason team camp before the school year began, which is a time for the new and old faces on the team to mesh.

That’s when the seven true freshmen and sophomore transfer Stephanie Morgan first gathered with the whole team and were introduced to Bizzarri and Boyle.

But Rasmussen did not formally introduce Bizzarri and Boyle as the team’s “undergraduate assistant coach” or “team manager,” as they appear on the roster.

“I just wanted (the freshmen) to be able to feel like they were part of the group because that is what they are,” Ramussen said. “This sounds weird, but if you give someone a title, or a responsibility or a job, even if they do help us out with a lot of things, a lot of times that can break down the barrier of communication.”

This year’s newcomers have found Bizzarri’s and Boyle’s roles helpful.

“I see them as role models, and if I ever need to ask them anything about my running form or anything running related or about school, it’s always nice to have them there,” freshman Meghan Frigo said.

Though Bizzarri’s achievements may seem unattainable for most, she wants the underclassmen to get to know her and understand that what she accomplished are realistic goals.

“I’m a normal person,” said Bizzarri, who is finishing up her final semester in molecular and cellular biology. “They can see someone themselves doing it. I watch Olympians run, and I used to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they ever do that.’ And when I meet one, I think they’re normal and maybe one day I could do that.

“The older I get, the more good and bad times I’ve gone through with running. I feel, with a lot of experiences, I’ve been through something similar. I feel like I’m able to relate to a lot of them through that.”

By participating in workouts and runs, both veteran runners hope to communicate a general theme — that hard work does pay off, that doing every drill and even eating healthy matters. It’s not just busywork.

Boyle’s story is a bit different from that of Bizzarri, who was heavily recruited.

Boyle joined the team her sophomore year as a walk-on transfer from Northwestern. She only ran one race her first year and didn’t finish among the top group.

But in her senior year, she garnered Second-Team All-Big Ten and All-Region honors.

When asked how she suddenly sparked, Boyle took a long pause before answering.

“It sounds kind of cliché, but to always believe in yourself. To train like the runner that you know you can be, not necessarily where you are at that moment.

“Don’t set any limitations for yourself. Train as if you are the first runner, and I think that’s how you get there.”