Men’s cross country still has goals to chase after Big Ten improvement

When Wendel McRaven stepped into the role of men’s cross country head coach for the Illini six years ago, he envisioned building a program with a team atmosphere that could compete on the national level.

“I’ve always been a part of a good team atmosphere for good, successful teams,” McRaven said. “I wanted to create a team with depth and a high level of expectations, especially for a Big Ten program.”

The Illini took a step in the right direction last weekend at the Big Ten Championships, taking sixth place in the team standings and matching their highest finish in the Big Ten in over a decade.

The only other year the team finished that high was during the 2007 campaign. That Illini squad had a much different look than the current one, though.

“That team had what I call a ‘banger’ up front in All-American Trent Hoerr, who finished third individually at the Big Ten meet,” McRaven said. “Our team right now doesn’t have any superstars, so it’s really a team effort.”

Although the Illini made positive strides at the Big Ten Championships, part of having high expectations is admitting when those expectations are not met.

“(The results) are better than last year and better than the year before (that), so it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” junior Jim Riddle said. “But coach said in one of his speeches that none of us came to the University of Illinois to finish sixth in the Big Ten, so we still have a vision of finishing higher.”

McRaven pointed to Wisconsin as a program that thrives under high expectations and continually produces in spite of them.

“Wisconsin won their 12th straight Big Ten Championship. I think they’ve probably won a couple of those because it says Wisconsin on their singlet,” McRaven said. “Part of that is level of expectations.”

Still, the Illini have reason to be optimistic for the future. The top seven runners and a loaded junior class will return with the hope of consistently competing in the upper half of the Big Ten.

“I already did the math, and if you score the returnees we’re third in the Big Ten next year,” McRaven said.

“We saw glimpses of turning the program around this year,” junior Nate Troester said. “There’s a lot of expectations going into next season, and it’s our third year under Coach McRaven, so we hope to gel and put together a good season.”

An opportunity for the team to make a lasting impression on this season awaits at the NCAA Midwest Regionals on Nov. 13. Illinois is ranked No. 5 in the Midwest Regional and is firmly planted on the bubble for an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships.

A third- or fourth-place finish at regionals could propel the Illini to an at-large berth.

“Everyone on the team is very hungry and knows that we can still have a great season if we run well at the Regional meet and accomplish goals there,” Riddle said.

“Every meet we’ve come away saying, ‘We’re almost there,’” McRaven said. “I’m challenging them to finish the season and not say, ‘We’re almost there,’ and put together our best race.”