Illini men’s Cross Country kick off season with Illini Challenge

By Christopher Kennedy

The Illini men’s cross-country team has won the season opening Illini Challenge nine years in a row. After a long summer of training, they’ll try to make it ten.

“Even though it’s a first early season meet, we still want to win,” said junior Paul Zeman. “Big summer of training … We’re ready to see how it pays off.”

The Illini will have better competition Friday than in years past. The only other varsity team that competed in 2013 was NAIA school Hannibal-LaGrange. This year, the Missouri Tigers come to town and should provide an early measuring stick for the Illini. 

Illinois has finished one place ahead of Missouri in the past two NCAA Midwest Regionals. Last year, the Illini barely edged the Tigers by two points. The addition of Missouri gives the meet a little more meaning.

“Missouri is a good program that has a lot of guys running well, not only within the region, but within the SEC. I like the idea of having a competitive environment like this right away,” head coach Jake Stewart said. “It makes us a little more engaged with opening up the year.”

Zeman said that he spent the summer consistently running 90-100 miles a week with several teammates. A strong summer of running, combined with a few weeks of training together, should have Illinois in position for that 10th straight victory. Though it’s a relatively small meet, it still holds some weight as the first race back for Zeman and the team. It’s a “rust-buster” and it gives the runners a chance to practice pack-running in a race situation.

Most of the team’s top athletes will not compete this weekend, but the meet provides experience. The smaller meet provides an opportunity for athletes who might spend the season as redshirts to race unattached. Three of Illinois’ entries this year: Garrett Lee, Alex Gold and Alex Notton, made their debut as unattached runners at last year’s Challenge.

Joining the unattached runners will be runners from the Illinois club cross-country team. Last year, one of those runners was senior Brendan McDonnell, who ran the meet as a member of the club team and finished third behind Jannis Toepfer and Liam Markham. He joined the varsity team soon after the Challenge and was a top-5 mainstay for Illinois all-season.

Friday marks the first of the Illini’s two home meets this season. With all of the advantages that come from running at home, Stewart hopes the meet continues to grow.

“It’s nice not having to travel. It’s a meet we’ve had for a real long time. It’s a very familiar setting for them,” Stewart said. “We have a great course. We really want this to continue to grow and be a great meet that we can start the year with.”

The competition between Illinois and Missouri should be close again this season, as the preseason Midwest Regional rankings put Illinois at fifth and Missouri at seventh, respectively. This season, the Illini are aiming higher, both at the Regional and in the Big Ten.

Zeman said the team’s goal is to finish in the top-3 in the Big Ten and finish the year at NCAA Nationals, which requires a top-two team finish at Regionals. Friday marks the Illini’s first strides toward those goals.

Chris can be reached at [email protected]