Illini men’s cross-country’s veteran squad full of potential

By Christopher Kennedy

Last year, the Illinois men’s cross-country team entered the national rankings for the first time in 16 years. Its stay in the polls only lasted two weeks.  

Look for them to stick around much longer this year. 

The entire top seven from the Big Ten Championship and NCAA Regional lineups returns and is looking to improve upon fifth and seventh place finishes, respectively. Throw in juniors Sam Telfer and Jereme Atchinson, who competed at the 2012 NCAA Regional, and the Illini have nine runners with postseason running experience.

Leading the charge once again for Illinois will be Jannis Topfer, who returns for another season with the Orange and Blue. He was the team’s top runner in every meet he competed in last year, including a third-place finish at the NCAA Regional.

Behind him is a group of juniors and sophomores looking to help the Illini take the next step as a contender. Liam Markham and Ian Barnett can be a nice 2-3 punch behind Topfer, but Barnett needs to stay consistent throughout the season. Last year, the team put together a strong performance at the competitive Wisconsin Adidas Invite in October, finishing 19th with one of its best top five splits of the season at 52 seconds.

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Barnett is fresh off of a 6th-place finish in the 5K at Big Tens, seconds behind some of the conference’s top runners, including reigning cross-country champ Malachy Schrobiligen of Wisconsin. He should be confident heading into his junior campaign.

There’s plenty of room for surprises in the Illinois top seven, with so many runners returning, many that were in the top seven at some point last year. Will Brewster finished the season strong for Illinois last year, and Tommy King and Paul Zeman were top seven mainstays a year ago.  

Grad student Brendan McDonnell was also a consistent top five member for the Illini once he joined the team after the Illini Open. He should be even better this year following a full track season and summer with the team.   

Another runner to watch is junior Joe McAsey. After missing all of his freshman track season and most of his sophomore cross-country season, McAsey had a huge breakout season on the track. He was second team All-American after a 14th place finish in the 800-meters at nationals and was the Big Ten champion in the event. 

The Illini lose only one athlete from last year’s roster, captain Graham Morris. Throw in a freshman class that includes five Illinois All-State high school runners, and a lot could change in the team’s final postseason lineup behind Topfer.

Head coach Jake Stewart is entering his third year with the Illini. In his first season, he led the team to its highest Big Ten and Regional finishes — fourth-place in each — since 1997 and 2002, respectively. 

Last year he said he was disappointed in the team’s postseason performances, but this season could have the Illini looking higher than a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten.

With a proven frontrunner in Topfer and a wealth of experienced talent, this year’s team has a ton of potential.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].