Illini face biggest challenge yet at NCAA regional

Coming off a disappointing showing in the Big Ten Championships, the Illinois men’s cross-country team will try to bounce back at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Ames, Iowa, on Friday. The regional will be the Illini’s last chance to rebound from a fifth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships, at which they felt they could have done better.

While the field of nine states at the Midwest Regional will be over three times the size of the Big Ten meet, only four of the 37 teams competing received more votes than Illinois (3 votes) in the USTFCCCA’s latest national coaches’ poll: Oklahoma State (341), Tulsa (226), Iowa State (71) and Minnesota (11). Oklahoma State and Tulsa are the champions of their respective conferences this year.

The number of teams is not the only thing that will expand for the regional. The course will be 10 kilometers long, rather than the 8K course at the Big Ten Championships. This will be the first time Illinois has run longer than 8K this season.

“It’s our first time at 10,000 meters this year, but I think we’re excited to get in the mix and really focus on the second half of the race,” Illinois assistant coach Steve Fuelling said.

Another difference between the conference championships and the regional is the number of runners the team is allowed. Illinois sent nine runners to the Big Ten meet, but only seven will run in the regional. All-Big Ten selection senior Jannis Toepfer will lead the team consisting of junior Brendan McDonnell, sophomores Liam Markham, Ian Barnett, Tommy King and Paul Zeman and freshman Will Brewster.

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Fuelling said head coach Jake Stewart’s absence from practice has not hindered the team’s preparation for the regional. Stewart missed two days of practice early this week because his wife was in labor with their first child.

Although Friday’s race could mark the end of Illinois’s season, Zeman said the team’s plan is to “focus on today,” while Fuelling added that the team understands “they’ve got to bring their A-game.”

“We’re just planning on going out and running as a team just like we do in practice every day,” Zeman said.

Last season, Illinois took fourth overall in the regional, its best finish since a third-place finish in 2002, but Zeman believes that this year’s team can bring Illinois its first top-three finish in 11 years. 

“We’re capable of accomplishing what we set out to do at the start of the year,” Fuelling said. “I think we’re excited and looking forward to it.”

Thomas can be reached at [email protected].