Women’s cross country looking to top the middle of the pack at Big Tens

About this time last year, Chantelle Groenewoud was a junior racing in her third Big Ten Championships. Prior to racing, the thought hit her that a year later, that same competition could be her last.

About this time last year, Chantelle Groenewoud was a junior racing in her third Big Ten Championships. Prior to racing, the thought hit her that a year later, that same competition could be her last.

Now a senior approaching Sunday’s conference championships — and possibly the second-to-last cross country race of her collegiate career — Groenewoud said the thought isn’t as overwhelming as she had previously imagined.

“There comes a point were it’s just like, ‘OK, I’ve done this over and over again, I can appreciate it,’” the Vancouver native said. “It is what it is, and I’m just glad to give it one more Big Ten cross country shot.”

Eight Illini teammates will join Groenewoud as the women’s cross country squad heads to Madison, Wis., to compete in the 6K. She and junior Kristin Sutherland are the only returning top runners who have experienced the Big Ten atmosphere. The Illini know they don’t have the legs that once made them conference contenders, and are willing to face their realistic goals.

“Yeah, we’re definitely not in competition for the No. 1 spot like were last year, but could we end up fourth, fifth or sixth, yeah, that’s definitely a possibility,” Sutherland said. “As long as we’re in the top half then that’s good. We’ll be happy with that.”

It was a different story last season, when the Illini entered the conference championships ranked 13th in the nation, vied for the title, and barely edged Minnesota for second.

Five teams enter this year’s meet ranked in the top-30, including No. 16 Michigan State and No. 19 Minnesota. Illini women’s cross country coach Jeremy Rasmussen called it a battle among the “unranked teams” for at most the fifth spot, though he said anything could happen.

“You might have one or two of those (ranked) teams so worked up to try and win it that they crumble and fall, and we’re going to be there and pick those pieces up,” Rasmussen said.

“For us, that’s the idea, to come in knowing that we got to beat every unranked team that’s there, and if somebody doesn’t race well, we’re going to be ready for the taking,” he added.

As always, Illinois will look to play off teammates and have each runner post a “good race day” at once. But Rasmussen introduced a new focus as well.

“The one common thing we’re going to talk about this week is, that we really haven’t talked about all the way up to this point, is we need to run our race,” Rasmussen said. “It’s time for everybody to stick to their plan and execute their plan. And if we do that, then I think there is going to be people around who are going to be able to help run together.”

Sutherland entered the season expecting to be Illinois’ lead runner, but has been battling a hip-injury. Last season, she finished seventh among 97 runners, just making the cut for First-Team All-Big Ten. This year, she’s expected to at least be the fifth runner for Illinois.

That makes Groenewoud the expected Illini leader. She finished 13th last year and made Second-Team All-Big Ten. Come Sunday, she hopes to finish higher, faster and maybe make the First Team.

“Coach says be selfish, so just think about yourself and do what you need to do to be the best,” Groenewoud said. “Whether that is going to bed early, whether that is making sure that you’re in the ice tub, you have to do what you have to do to be ready on Sunday.”