Junior Jacob Nachel is one of the Illini's top returners from last season.
Aug. 25, 2008
After guiding the 2007 Fighting Illini to their most successful season in a decade, cross country coach Wendel McRaven enters his fourth season at the helm of the Illini with anticipation and excitement. With the loss of three of the team's top five finishers from last season, the 2008 Illini are looking to a new group of runners to pick up where they left off a season ago.
The 2007 Orange and Blue took sixth at both the Big Ten Championships and the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships, Illinois' highest finishes at the meets since 1996 and 2004, respectively. In addition, senior Trent Hoerr became Illinois' first All-American since 1990 and the first regional champion since 1976.
"We have had some success here, especially last season," McRaven said. "Since I've been here, we have made improvement a priority. Every year we have gotten better and this year should be no different."
Greater expectations and the opportunity to put Illinois back in the national spotlight will loom large for the 2008 squad. A solid recruiting class combined with a strong training regimen should help McRaven develop the newest Illini into Big Ten athletes. But with a young squad of just two seniors, there are plenty of opportunities for underclassmen to step into leadership roles.
"I'm excited to see what our guys can do, but I think the best way to prepare for this season is to be cautiously optimistic," McRaven said. "We don't have that veteran big gun returning like we have had the past two years with Jason Bill and Trent Hoerr heading into the year as our clear number one runner."
The scene is set for leaders to emerge and keep the Illini moving in the right direction. Senior Tim Maier will be asked to carry some of the load. A season ago Maier competed in every event for the Illini, including a career best 8K time of 24:30 at Pre-Nationals.
"Jacob and Jeremy have the talent to give us two elite-level athletes," McRaven said. "Last year they proved they belonged. Now, it is their time to prove they can lead this team."
A year ago, Nachel solidified the Illini lineup behind Hoerr as the Illini's second finisher in five of seven meets, breaking into the record books at Pre-Nationals by running the fourth-fastest 8K in school history (23:50). He will look to take the next step in cross country after a breakout outdoor track season where he finished third at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in the 5,000m and qualified for the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships.
"Nachel has shown flashes of his potential," McRaven said. "I think his performance at the Big Ten outdoor meet gave him insight to his potential."
Stevens returned midway through the season from an injury and finished in the top four Illini at every meet he ran.
"Stevens has been dogged by some unfortunate injuries," McRaven said. "We are both confident that we have hit on a formula to keep him healthy long-term. When he is able to train consistently, he is very good."
Fellow junior Rob Pykosz had a breakout track season as well, scoring in the 3,000m steeplechase at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships and earning a trip in the event to the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships. Pykosz did not compete in 2007 due to injury, but could easily creep into the lineup.
"Pykosz has proven he is a capable athlete," McRaven said. "He now needs to prove he can do it on the cross country course as well as on the track."
Another athlete to watch for in the Illini lineup is sophomore Michael Murray, who had a solid 2007 season competing in all but one meet for the Illini, taking ninth in the 1,500m at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships. Sophomore Jared Richardson would be in the mix as well after a successful 2007 season, but will have to sit out this year due to injury.
McRaven and the Illini staff continued their successful recruiting efforts in the state of Illinois this past year, signing some of the top distance talent in the state. With unproven depth, the nine Illini newcomers will have an opportunity some schools can't offer, the chance to compete right away against Big Ten and national competition.
"I'm excited about this freshman group," McRaven said. "It is deep and talented. We have a state champion, two state runner-ups and probably five of the top-10 senior cross country runners in the state from last season. If they can be patient and develop like their predecessors at Illinois, they will play a significant role in the future of our program."
The class consists of Tom Achtien (Elmhurst, Ill.), Nathan Bohne (Palos Heights, Ill.), Chris DeSilva (St. Charles, Ill.), Kyle Engnell (Homer Glen, Ill.), Graham Farnsworth (Wheaton, Ill.), Colin Mickow (Princeton, Ill.), Ron Revord (Frankfort, Ill.), Jim Riddle (Naperville, Ill.) and Nathan Troester (Mokena, Ill.).
Highlighting the class are Engnell, the 2008 Illinois AA 1600m state champion, and Achtien, who took second at the 2008 Illinois 3A Cross Country Championships. Troester is another potential immediate contributer, as he was runner-up in the 3200m at the 2008 Illinois AA State Championships and boasted the sixth-fastest indoor 3200m time in the nation.
"This year it is especially important to make the freshmen understand what it takes to be a Big Ten runner day in and day out," McRaven said. "Time management is an essential skill to all college students, but especially to student-athletes."
The Orange and Blue will have multiple opportunities to find the perfect lineup for the championship meets at the end of the season. Racing against some of the top competition in the nation early, with the Sean Earl Lakefront Invitational in Chicago and the annual Pre-Nationals meet, should give the Illini a chance to grow and develop.
"We put together a solid schedule this year," McRaven said. "The championship meets at the end of the year are the only meets everyone remembers, and as always our focus is on being ready when it counts."