The Daily Illini

Illinois men’s cross-country gears up for Regionals

By Matt Gertsmeir

Brendan McDonnell ran for three years on Illinois’ club cross-country team before impressing coaches and earning a spot on the varsity team. Bryce Basting used to wear an Eastern Illinois uniform before transferring and running in an orange and blue one. Jannis Toepfer studied in the Netherlands before joining the Illini at the age of 22.

Though they took different, unorthodox paths to the Illinois cross-country team, one thing remains the same for all three seniors. This Friday at the NCAA Regionals in Peoria, Illinois, could be their last race as Illini.

In order to secure a spot at NCAA Nationals, a team must place in the top-two of the Regional meet. The top-four individuals who are not members of one of the top-two teams advance to Nationals as well, but individual results are not the focus for the Illini this Friday.

“The important part for me is to get the team there,” Toepfer said. “I’ve been there twice as an individual and it’s much more fun when you have people around than (being) just by yourself.”

At last year’s Regionals, Toepfer took third place, while Illinois finished seventh out of 29 teams. 

Oklahoma State, who has won eight of the last 10 Midwest Regionals, took first last season. Ranked fourth in the nation, it is expected to do the same this year.

“Oklahoma State is going to get first every single time, I don’t think anyone would question that,” McDonnell said. “They’re pretty much a lock for first, so that second spot is open. For us to get second, we need to run as good as we did at Big Tens, probably a little better.”

Illinois came in sixth place as a team at Big Tens. Not all Big Ten teams compete in the same Regional. Minnesota and Iowa took seventh and eight at Big Tens, respectively. Both will compete against Illinois on Friday.

Of the 33 teams racing in the region this year, Illinois believes it is capable of a top-two finish.

“The one thing we constantly talk about is not focusing on the teams we’re racing against,” head coach Jake Stewart said. “I think there are five or six teams that are very interchangeable and we’re amongst those teams.”

Accompanying McDonnell, Basting and Toepfer will be juniors Ian Barnett, Liam Markham and Paul Zeman, sophomore Will Brewster and freshman Garrett Lee. Everyone except Lee has raced at Regionals before, but Lee’s inexperience should not be an issue. 

Illinois has had a two-week break since Big Tens. The team has utilized its time off by preparing for the 10K race at Regionals. The Illini have run 8K races for a majority of the season.

“The real difference is just being patient throughout the race,” Basting said. “Just hanging in the back, staying patient and then over the last 2K, utilize the fitness you’ve been working all year to have.”

Whether or not Illinois achieves its goal of a top-two finish, Stewart wants to see these seniors give it their all.

“I want them to be able to walk away from the weekend knowing that their last race in uniform for us was what they wanted,” Stewart said. “I don’t want them to regret anything, enjoy it, enjoy being with the team, enjoy the atmosphere, you only get to do this for a few years and then you’re done so enjoy this and don’t take it for granted.”

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

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