A little luck could have gotten Illini men’s cross-country to Nationals

Jake Stewart may be spending this offseason looking for a good luck charm.

The head coach of the Illinois men’s cross-country team watched his team fall 2,000 meters short of qualifying for Nationals, as the team ended its season by placing fifth at the NCAA Regional meet. Stewart claimed the team’s failure to place in the top two spots wasn’t due to a lack of effort, but rather a lack of luck.

“The program is in a great spot,” Stewart said. “The talent is here. At this point, the luck factor comes in where we need a little bit to go our way.”

Illinois’ fifth-place finish at Regionals was its best performance all season. A strong finish at Regionals was a goal the team had since its team camp in Galena, Illinois, at the start of the season.

“The mission of our program is to run our best races in November, and sometimes that’s tough to do on a day in September or early on in the year that doesn’t go as well as you wanted to. We had those,” Stewart said. “But the guys were upbeat and had a very good sense of what ultimately our goal was and never deferred from that.”

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    Early this season, the Illini had several runners battle injury. Junior Liam Markham nursed a stress fracture in his shin for most of the year while senior Brendan McDonnell dealt with a back injury.

    Despite the injuries, the team had a solid season and competed for top finishes in all its meets. The team came in seventh out of 29 teams in the Roy Griak Invite, 12th out of 28 in the Greater Louisville Classic and sixth place at the Big Ten Championships.

    Seniors Bryce Basting and Jannis Toepfer and juniors Ian Barnett and Paul Zeman were key contributors to the team’s success. Toepfer and Barnett were consistently the top finishers for the Illini this season.

    Stewart credits the team’s ability to contend at meets because Illini runners focused on the success of teammates instead of individual results.

    Next year, the addition of some new runners may just be the spark Illinois needs. Jesse Reiser from McHenry High School in McHenry, Illinois, and Zach Dale from Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, have both committed to Illinois for next season. This year, Reiser took first place at the IHSA 3A cross-country championship and Dale came in second, 10 seconds behind Reisser.

    “Anytime you get kids to commit like that, that says something about where the program is at, so I’m excited,” Stewart said.

    Stewart and the cross-country team now turn their attention toward the upcoming track season, while only time will tell if they’ll have luck on their side at the start of next year’s cross-country season.

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