Illini head to indoor Big Tens with unfinished business

By Chris Kennedy

Last year, Brandon Stryganek left the Big Ten Indoor Championships with a conference championship in the 60 meters. This year he comes in with a target on his back.

“It’s gonna be a little different for me because I’m defending my 60-meter title,” Stryganek, said. “But we’ve had a target on our backs since last indoor season, and coach has prepared me for this, so I’m gonna go out and get it done.”

This will be Stryganek’s third conference meet in as many years with the team. He finished third in the 60 as a freshman. Stryganek said he gets a better feel for the meet each year, and this year, as an upperclassman, he is prepared to help his younger teammates transition to Big Tens.

Stryganek isn’t the only Illini who comes in as a reigning conference champ, his teammate, Stephon Pamilton, will look to defend his indoor 400 title from last year as well. Both athletes also have something left to prove in the 200. Stryganek and Pamilton finished first and second, respectively, in the 200 preliminaries last year, but Ohio State’s Timothy Faust edged them for first place in the finals by .04 seconds, relegating them to second and third.

The Illini return to the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio, this weekend for the Big Ten Indoor Championships, the meet was hosted at SPIRE last year as well. In 2013, the Illini left Geneva with a strong meet but came up just short of winning the team title. The team finished second, just 2.5 points behind Wisconsin. The Illini have several scorers returning from last year’s meet poised for strong performances.    

One of those scorers is senior Vanier Joseph, the Illini’s top hurdler. Joseph finished second in last year’s 60 hurdles.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was last year,” Joseph said.

In an event as short as the 60 meter hurdles, the start is key, and Joseph said he has improved getting out of the blocks. He feels confident in his ability to compete after running in some tough indoor meets.

“I ran against the guys that put up the top marks in the nation, so going into conference I know I’m capable of running those same times, and I know what it’s gonna take in order to run those times.

“I know I’m not gonna get another chance at it,” Joseph said. “I know I’m going to be putting it all out there on the line.”

Joseph’s hurdles teammate, sophomore Cam Viney, is also looking to compete well this weekend. He finished fourth in the 60 hurdles last year and has had a strong indoor season.

Also looking to return as point-scorers are thrower Davis Fraker and pole vaulter Matthew Bane. Fraker was seventh last year in the weight throw. Fraker, who is currently No. 25 nationally, will try to make some noise in an extremely deep event featuring the top four weight throwers in the country and two more in the top 30. Bane was second at Big Tens last year, and is steadily returning to form this indoor season.

Another event to watch for the Illini is the 4×400 relay. Three of the four members are returning, and they currently have the fourth-fastest time in the Big Ten and 19th in the nation. It’s worth noting that the relay’s season-best time came on the SPIRE track two weeks ago at the SPIRE Invitational.

The competition will be steep for the Illini this weekend though, as the Big Ten features four teams in the USTFCCCA top 25 and four more in the top 50. The athletes competing know the stakes are higher than any meet thus far in the indoor season.

“There’s a lot more on the line,” Stryganek said. “This has a little more weight to it.”

Stryganek clearly knows what the goal is for the meet.

“Ultimately, I want to win a team title,” Stryganek said. “Anything else that comes individually is great.

“After what happened last year, we had a great chance of doing it, but the cards just didn’t fall together,” he added. “This season, I don’t see why we can’t go out and do it.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected].