Morris has improved “extremely” for Illini cross-country

Graham Morris’ journey has been one of progression, from Lawrenceville, Ill., to Eastern Illinois in Charleston, to Champaign-Urbana and the Illinois men’s cross-country team.

Morris, one of two seniors on the cross-country team this year along with fellow captain Jannis Toepfer, grew up on a farm in Lawrenceville, a town of less than 5,000 that’s about two ?and a half hours south of Champaign.

Living on a farm has given Morris plenty of room to run and a unique place to train. Leaving his house, he can either take a long-distance run over flat ground or train on hilly terrain.

At Lawrenceville High School, Morris was named to the all-state team three times in cross-country and twice in track. He finished fifth overall in the IHSA Cross-Country State Championships his senior year.

From Lawrenceville, Morris went on to run track and cross-country at Eastern Illinois, where he made strides as a runner for three years. His best 8-kilometer time in 2009 was 27 minutes, 43 seconds. By 2010, that number was down almost a minute and a half to 26:18. In 2011, his final year at Eastern, Morris’s best time in the 8K was 25:43, two whole minutes better than his freshman year.

After completing Eastern Illinois’ pre-engineering program, Morris enrolled in graduate school at Illinois and continued running, shaving another 59 seconds off his personal best, bringing it down to 24:44.

In his fifth year of college running, Morris possesses the experience to help make him a leader for the Illini. Head coach Jake Stewart said he is one of the most “coachable” athletes he has ever had.

“He has complete trust in what we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s probably part of the reason why he’s having the success that he’s had,” Stewart said.

“He’s come from being a good high school runner, but by no means would you look at what he did in high school and think it would correlate to college. He’s gotten extremely better from his four or five years of school.”

Leadership is important on a team with just three upperclassmen on the roster, and Stewart feels that Morris is a big part of what the team is trying to do.

“He started out as just another guy and has gotten better,” Stewart said, “so a lot of the younger athletes can turn to him and they know where he started and where he’s at.”

Friday’s NCAA Midwest Regional could mark the end of Morris’ cross-country career at Illinois. Erin Howarth, Morris’ coach at Eastern Illinois, believes Morris can reach any level of competition to which he aspires.

“If he continues to be confident in his training and he continues to be confident that he can make a USA championship, that he can be in the top 3 in America, he can do it,” Howarth said.

Thomas can be reached at [email protected]