Illinois men’s cross-country looks to the future with youth movement

By Thomas Donley

With 17 underclassmen on the roster, it was expected for the Illinois men’s cross-country team to experience a down season while grooming its young athletes for NCAA competition. However, senior Jannis Toepfer and the Illini put together a solid campaign on which to build for the future, finishing in the top half of the field at six out of seven scored meets during the regular season.

Toepfer, a German-born graduate student, led Illinois in every meet in which he competed. He garnered All-Big Ten and All-Region honors in his final collegiate season and clocked the fourth-fastest 8K time in school history.

Head coach Jake Stewart has been working to replace Toepfer and solidify his roster with next season’s incoming recruiting class.

“I think we’ve got a well-rounded class coming in,” Stewart said. “We’re still finalizing some things, so it’s tough to say what the final roster is going to look like, but I think we’ve got some guys coming in who can help us.”

Illinois started the season with its ninth straight first-place finish at the Illini Challenge. Toepfer took first place in the 6K race with a personal-best 18 minutes, 58 seconds. The Illini took four of the top five spots in the race, as sophomore Liam Markham took second, and Tommy King and Ian Barnett took fourth and fifth, respectively.

In Illinois’ second meet, it took fourth place at Purdue’s Big Ten Preview. After that meet, the Illini entered the USTFCCCA’s national rankings for the first time, tied at No. 30 with Big Ten rival Michigan State.

Illinois would fall out of the rankings after a 12th-place finish at the Notre Dame Invitational. Toepfer finished sixth with a five-mile time of 24:36. Toepfer was the lone Illini to finish in the top 25 at Notre Dame.

Illinois took eighth place out of 22 at the Bradley Classic on Oct. 18. Freshman Luke Carroll paced all Illini runners with a personal-best 8K time of 24:48. Jordan Hebert of Illinois won the meet running unattached with a time of 24:07.

The next day, the Illini competed at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, taking 19th place as Toepfer, Markham, Barnett, junior Brendan McDonnell, freshman Will Brewster and sophomore Paul Zeman all set personal bests.

In the final regular season meet, Illinois runners swept the top five at the Illini Open. Sophomore Sam Telfer and freshman Jereme Atchison finished second and fifth, respectively, while Hebert, running unattached, took first. Joe Cowlin and Alex Gold, also running unattached, took third and fourth, respectively.

The Illini started the postseason by placing fifth at the Big Ten Championships. Toepfer earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition by finishing sixth with a time of 24:31. Markham finished 17th, three places shy of second team all-conference. Indiana took first overall as a team, and Malachy Schrobilgen of Wisconsin took the individual title.

Illinois failed to meet its expectations in the Big Ten meet, but that disappointment was indicative of the team’s recent improvement. The Illini finished in the top half of the conference for just the second time in 15 years.

After Big Tens, the Illini headed to the NCAA Midwest Regionals, where they finished seventh out of eight teams. Toepfer finished the 10K race with a time of 30:31 to finish third overall and qualifying for nationals, three seconds behind the winner.

Eyeing a top-40 finish that would earn him All-American status, Toepfer faltered at the NCAA Championships despite a type effort, finishing 115th to end his career.

Several Illini also run distance events in track to keep in shape for cross-country. With Toepfer and fellow senior Graham Morris graduating from the 2013 team, Stewart will look to some younger runners for leadership.

“I think it’s fair to look at guys like Liam Markham and Ian Barnett to step up into a leadership role,” Stewart said. “They’re guys who’ve been around for some time and are ready to take the next step.”

Thomas can be reached at [email protected] and @donley_thomas.