Men’s cross-country finishes second against Portland

By Christopher Kennedy

The Illini men’s cross-country team flew across the country this weekend to run against the No. 7 Portland Pilots. Portland won with a low score of 19, besting the Illini’s 36 in a meet where neither team ran at full strength. Several Illini are yet to make their season debut and only one of Portland’s returning runners from the lineup that took seventh at Nationals last year competed. However, there was still plenty of intrigue surrounding the meet held in Kelso, Washington.

The meet was a kind of a homecoming for head coach Jake Stewart. Athletes ran on a modified four-mile version of Kelso High School’s cross-country course, where Stewart competed 14 years ago and his father, Joe Stewart, coached for 30 years.

The Illini held their own with Portland for most of the race. Things appeared even at the three-mile mark. Portland was able to finish and take the first three spots and put five in the top seven.

Saturday marked the season debut of Illinois’ top returner and national qualifier Jannis Toepfer. He finished fifth overall in 19 minutes and 55.83 seconds. The graduate student will most likely continue be the leader of the Illini pack.

However, that title went to Paul Zeman on Saturday. Zeman was the top finisher for Illinois, pacing the team in 19:54.24. Zeman finished last season as the Illini’s seven man at the NCAA Midwest Regional. While only two early and relatively low-key meets have been run, the confidence that comes with running as the team’s leader may mean bigger things are in store this year for Zeman.

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    While it was just an early season dual meet, the race gives the Illini valuable experience going on the road and competing against one of the nation’s top programs. Several redshirt freshmen made their first trips as members of the Illinois varsity team: Garrett Lee, Joe Cowlin and Alex Gold. Those runners, each coming off a redshirt year, will be in the mix for the top seven spots along with the deep number of experienced returning veterans.

    Christopher can be reached at [email protected].