Andrew Riley is one of two returning All-Americans for the Fighting Illini.
Jan. 19, 2010
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Illinois men's track and field team is under new leadership heading into the 2010 season after former head coach Wayne Angel stepped down in November. Field events coach Mike Turk was named the interim head coach and has high expectations for the squad this season. After a smooth transition, the Illini tracksters have quickly bought into Turk's philosophy.
"We are focused on creating a positive atmosphere that demands commitment and discipline to raise the bar of expectations and perform better as a team," Turk said. "Everyone in the program is learning their role and making a contribution toward returning this program to excellence. If our athletes live up to expectations and fulfill their role on the team, they will be successful."
The Fighting Illini's success will rely on the leadership provided by a handful of seniors for the plethora of underclassmen. With a roster dominated by youth, gaining experience with each meet will be essential for the Illini to contend at the Big Ten Championships and the national level.
"This team has the task of turning the corner and getting us back into the upper half of the conference," Turk said. "With few seniors and a very young team, this will be a great challenge for us but will set us on the right path for the future. Since the goal of the program is always to win Big Ten Championships, we have to build the program to that level, and this year's team has a very important role in that process. We are all very excited about the opportunities in front of us."
Illinois will face that challenge with a number of fresh faces, who look forward to adding their names to the rich history of Illinois track and field. Despite the loss of six letterwinners from a year ago, including two-time All-American and six-time Big Ten champion Gakologelwang Masheto, the Illini return two All-Americans in sophomore Andrew Riley and senior Greg Shroka. Last season, Riley earned All-America status during both the indoor (60m hurdles) and outdoor (110m hurdles) seasons while setting the school record in those events and picking up a Big Ten title (60m hurdles) along the way. Shroka became the first Illini outdoor All-American in the high jump in 30 years with his sixth-place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
The remainder of the Illini roster includes a number of Big Ten scorers, who hope to improve on their performances from last season, and an eager group of newcomers that aspire to continue their high school success at the collegiate level.
Sprints / Hurdles
Head women's track and field coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, a 25-time Big Ten champion, has stepped in to coach the sprinters and hurdlers while also remaining in charge of the women's program. Turk has already seen improvements under the new guidance from the sprinting corps, which has a different look from years past.
"Coach Bailey has already had a positive impact on our young men," Turk said. "She is a great leader and extremely knowledgeable. We will see a big benefit from her work as we progress through the season.
"The make-up of our sprint crew is very different than in the past several years. This year's sprint group will be much better and deeper in the short sprints than in the past."
Riley, the 2009 Big Ten Indoor Freshman of the Year, is expected to build upon his outstanding finishes from last season. The Kingston, Jamaica native looks to reset his own school records in the 60m hurdles and 110m hurdles, defend his Big Ten title in the 60m hurdles and garner even more accolades at the conference and national level. He will not only be a threat in the hurdles, but also in the short sprints and high jump, where he turned in the team's top time in the 60m dash and second-best leap a year ago.
"Andrew is our workhorse," Turk said. "He has matured and developed into a great athlete and teammate. He will be in the mix in the hurdles at the NCAA level and be able to score in the jumps for us."
The short sprints are highlighted by the duo of senior Azeez Shogbuyi and junior Stanley Azie, which placed second at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in the 4x100m relay along with Riley and junior Cody Wisslead. Shogbuyi had a breakthrough season in 2009, scoring in the 100m and anchoring the Big Ten runner-up 4x100m relay, while Azie was a finalist in the 200m at the conference meet.
"Azeez is a consistent performer who continues to improve," Turk said. "He has made the most of his opportunity here at the University of Illinois, and will lead the charge for us in the short sprints along with Azie. Those two will form the nucleus of the 4x100m relay."
Those upperclassmen also will showcase their leadership skills for a pair of newcomers, who are expected to compete for spots on the 4x100m relay. Freshmen Boyea Lockett and Josh Zinzer hope to contribute to the relay and be a force in the 200m after excellent high school careers. Lockett won back-to-back titles in both the 100m and 200m at the Oklahoma state meet, while Zinzer is a four-time all-state selection and the 2009 Illinois state champion in the 200m.
"I am really excited to see what Boyea and Josh can do this year," Turk said. "Both guys will challenge to score in the 200m and will play a vital role on the 4x100m relay."
In the longer sprints, the Illini will need to fill the void left by the graduation of Masheto, one of the most decorated athletes in Illinois track history. Turk expects junior Dan Jones to try to fill those shoes after showing progress throughout the offseason. Along with Jones, Turk has been impressed with freshmen Bai Kabba, Malcolm Taylor and Zebo Zebe and junior transfer Shane Daniel, who will be asked to step up throughout the year.
"We lost a great one in Masheto, but I think our long sprint group will show a lot of growth and surprise people by the end of the year," Turk said. "We're young and unproven, but Dan Jones gets his chance to step out of the shadows and take on a much bigger role, while leading a handful of impressive newcomers in Bai, Malcolm, Zebo and Shane."
Kabba was the 2009 state champion in the 400m at the Illinois Class 3A meet and part of the 2009 runner-up team in the 4x400m relay, while Daniel was a two-time California Junior College state champion in the 4x400m relay. Taylor took second in the 400m at the 2008 Illinois Class A state meet and third in 2009, while Zebe placed fourth in that same race.
"Cody is an integral part of our team's performance," Turk said. "He has been one of the most consistent performers over the last two years, and he comes ready to work everyday, which is a great example for the rest of our team."
The middle distance group contains a trio of veteran leaders in seniors Brian Beaird, Scott Phelps and Mike Murray, but will have to replace the reigning 600m Big Ten champion in Gary Miller, who now serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the Illini. All three athletes have previously scored at the Big Ten meet, with Murray the most recent to do so in the 1,500m at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
"This might be among the most experienced group on the team," Turk said. "Those three guys have a tremendous work ethic and will see their hard work pay off this year. They're team players and leaders with the ability to do something special."
"Graham had a solid freshman season and looks poised for a breakthrough year," Turk said. "Kyle and Chris will also drop down to run the mile and are both capable of scoring for us."
Distance coach Wendel McRaven has a number of sophomores who look to break onto the scene after gaining more experience throughout the cross country season. As the year progresses, one of them will step up and become the leader the Illini need.
"We have a lot of depth in the long distance races, but now we need to see who will step up their performances and lead the pack," Turk said.
The most likely candidates to fill that role are Engnell, DeSilva or fellow sophomore Colin Mickow. Engnell scored at Big Tens in the 3,000m steeplechase, while DeSilva will compete against his classmate for the top spot in that event. During the cross country season, Mickow garnered All-Region accolades at the NCAA Midwest Regional after placing 18th with a 10K time of 31:18.
"Engnell and DeSilva will be a solid one-two punch in the steeplechase," Turk said. "Colin is coming off a great cross country season, and we look for him to continue to progress on the track."
Shroka highlights an excellent group of returners in the jumps. Shroka not only wants to repeat as an All-American in the high jump, he also eyes the school record in the event to go along with a conference title in his final season. Gail Olson currently holds that mark with a leap of 7-3, set back in 1979.
"Greg has had a remarkable career here, going from a walk-on to an All-American," Turk said. "His nature is to continue to raise the bar for himself, so there are still more goals to accomplish. The school record and a Big Ten championship to go along with another All-America award would be a fitting end to his career."
Bolstering the Illini lineup in the high jump are Riley and freshman Ryan Michel. Riley was the Illini's number two jumper a year ago, and Michel was a two-time Fox Valley Conference high jump champion in high school.
"The high jump is one of the best events in the conference, and we could have the best group we have ever had here with Shroka, Riley and Michel," Turk said. "We could potentially have three guys over the 7 feet barrier this year."
The Illini also have some exciting prospects in the horizontal jumps, with Shogbuyi, sophomore Roger Jones and newcomer Oz Lifshitz. Shogbuyi has just missed scoring in the long jump at the last two conference meets, while Jones expects to have a breakout year after a solid freshman season. Lifshitz, a junior transfer from Central Michigan, was the Mid-American Conference champion during the indoor and outdoor season in the triple jump and the Maccabiah International Games runner-up in triple jump in 2009.
"Oz Lifshitz will score solid points for us in the triple jump and could progress on to the NCAA championships," Turk said. "Shogbuyi has been on the cusp of scoring in the long jump for two years, and will be a threat this year as well. Roger Jones looks ready for a breakthrough season, and he will also add the triple jump to his duties."
Turk is excited about the progress made by the throwers, especially top returners senior Casey Fonnesbeck and junior Matt McHugh. Fonnesbeck just missed scoring in the shot put during the indoor season, but used a sixth-place finish at the outdoor conference meet to score points for the Illini. McHugh marked 190-4 (58.02m) in the hammer throw at the Illinois Invitational to break Bob Carper's school record of 187-4 set in 1979 and nearly matched that mark with a distance of 58.01m at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships to score the first points for the Illini.
"The throws group has continued to make progress and have started to become a strength of the program," Turk said. "We return two two-time Big Ten scorers in Fonnesbeck and McHugh. Matt should challenge for a top-three finish in the hammer and Casey should challenge for a top-three spot in the shot put."
With the loss of Andrew Zollner, a three-time NCAA Championships qualifier, the Illini expect sophomores Will Schaeffer and Alex Baldwin to step up this season. Schaeffer redshirted last season, but nearly scored in the event as a freshman with a ninth-place finish, while Baldwin placed 11th at the 2009 Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
"We will miss Andrew Zollner, but I expect big things from Will and Alex as the season progresses, and they gain confidence," Turk said. "Will is back healthy after an injury-plagued 2009, and Alex gained a lot of experience last season."
The two multi-events competitors for the Illini are sophomore Shawn Ledbetter and freshman Steve Monte. As a freshman, Ledbetter learned a great deal about Big Ten-level track and gained experience that will aid in his development this season. During his senior year of high school, Monte was an all-state selection in pole vault.
"Shawn has really improved since last year," Turk said. "He will continue to learn and master the events as he matures. Steve also has a future in the multi-events and will compete in the heptathlon indoors."