Illinois men’s cross-country to send balanced group to Big Ten’s

The Illinois men’s cross-country team starts off strong at the Illini Open 2014 at the Arborteum on Saturday. The team will compete for the Big Ten Championship on Sunday.

Jake Stewart doesn’t feel experience is going to be a deciding factor for the Illinois men’s cross-country team at the Big Ten Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, on Sunday. 

Even so, his team has plenty of it. Illinois’ nine-man roster features three seniors and three juniors on the nine-man roster who will compete. 

Instead, the head coach feels the Illini’s preparation through practice and previous meets will have a greater impact on how his team runs.

“I know we are incredibly prepared, we have to have the confidence in our preparation to go out and race to the best of our ability.” Stewart said. “It’s a tough conference, our guys understand that and respect that, but they also know that they are more than capable of running at a high level at this meet.”

The expected roster to race for Illinois on Sunday consists of seniors Jannis Toepfer, Bryce Basting and Brendan McDonnell, juniors Paul Zeman, Liam Markham and Ian Barnett, sophomore Will Brewster and freshmen Alex Gold and Garrett Lee. 

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At last year’s Big Ten’s, Toepfer finished sixth overall with a time of 24 minutes, 32 seconds. Toepfer wants to build off of that in this year’s race, however, none of the five runners who finished ahead of Toepfer last year graduated and will most likely be racing this Sunday.

“I think that I am capable of finishing better,” Toepfer said. “We (the top five finishers from last year) are all pretty even, so it will depend on the day and depend on the little things that can go either way.”

As well as finishing with an improved time from last year, Toepfer also wants to see his team perform well and contend for the championship.

“Big Ten is a good conference, so there are probably five or six teams that will be in contention and I count us as one of them,” Toepfer said. “It can go either way.”

Four teams come into Big Tens in the national rankings, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 14 Michigan, No. 20 Indiana and No. 22 Michigan State. Indiana won Big Ten’s last year.

Unlike Toepfer and the rest of the team, Gold and Lee will get their first taste of running at conference for the Orange and Blue.

“It means a lot. I’m really thankful for the opportunity because I’ve been an Illini fan my whole life,” Gold said. “It’s awesome to compete in a Big Ten competition. I’m just going to approach it like any other meet and hopefully my training comes together and I do what I have worked so hard to do.”

Matt can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter