Men’s cross-country prepares to defend Illini Challenge crown

Don’t be surprised if the faces of the Illinois men’s cross-country runners in Friday’s Illini Challenge look different.

Of the seven competitors for the Illini, five are redshirt freshmen. Not included in this group is standout senior Jordan Hebert, as the Illini are aiming to give a large group of redshirt freshmen some experience to prepare them for their first full collegiate season.

Eligibility wise, only five members of the team are not freshmen, giving it a very young look. For this particular tournament, however, newly hired head coach Jake Stewart is not very concerned and has confidence in his runners.

“They’re very talented, they certainly have the ability to run the way we need them to run,” Stewart said. “It’s just going to be a matter of them doing the things that they’re capable of doing, and that’ll give us a favorable outcome.”

The group competing in the Illini Challenge includes redshirt freshmen Ian Barnett, David Eckhart, Tommy King, Anthony Manfrin and Paul Zeman. Rounding out the squad are sophomore Joe McAsey and redshirt sophomore Mark Donohue.

To compensate for its youth, the team has put in a great deal of practice over the break and hard work since the start of training camp on Aug. 20 in preparation for this season.

“We put in a big summer, I was running 85 miles (per) week,” Zeman said. “We started workouts (last week) with longer tempo-type stuff, so we’re just putting in a lot of volume.”

Being redshirted, these runners spent last season, other than a few races running as individuals, watching their teammates compete in the events giving them a learning perspective that they feel has helped them improve.

“It’s really motivational watching all the other guys race because all year we were trying to get our redshirts lifted and get on the team,” Zeman said, “But I think it worked out for the best for us taking the year to get used to everything with college life, running and more intense work.”

“All of us freshmen, we built a lot of camaraderie last year getting in the races when we could (unattached) and we worked together a lot and grew as runners and as people,” King said. “We’re definitely a lot better off than we were a year ago.”

One stat that certainly favors the Illini is that they have won this meet for seven straight years. Even with a young squad, they are confident that they can extend this streak.

“The goal is always still the same: to come out on top,” Zemen said. “I don’t think just because we’re young that we think we would take second place or back down to any of the other competitors that are a little older.”

Stewart elaborated on this saying that, while hosting a meet at home is not advantageous, he thinks that allowing his runners to remain in their personal routines without having to travel can be beneficial in allowing them to compete at their best.

Charlie can be reached at [email protected]