Senior Jordan Hebert returns for the Illini after being All-Region and qualifying for the NCAA Championships last season.
Aug. 29, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. First-year cross country coach Jake Stewart views this season as one unique from previous seasons as the 2012 Illini return two upperclassmen and welcome a handful of freshmen and two transfers.
"We have a very talented group of athletes, most being pretty young," Stewart said. "We have a couple upperclassmen who have gone through this before and are doing a good job right now of leading by example. We have the talent to be successful, now it's just a matter of growing and developing over the season. We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to be where we want to be at the end of the year."
The Illini lost eight letterwinners, including NCAA Championship participant Jim Riddle, but they will return senior Jordan Hebert, who along with Riddle were the second pair of Illinois athletes in school history to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Hebert finished first for the Illini and 22nd overall at the Big Ten Championships, and second for the Illini at the NCAA Midwest Regional. The squad also returns senior Hunter Mickow who scored points for the Illini last season at the Big Ten outdoor championships in the 10,000m.
"Both Jordan and Hunter have had great successes," Stewart said. "I've talked to them a lot about showing up and setting an example with their approach and attitude for the younger guys. For our team to be successful and to grow, they need to be able to look to those two."
Along the way, new faces are expected to appear in the lineup as individuals step into new roles this year. Stewart is excited to see who is going to come out of the woodwork and make their presence known. These expectations may fall upon the seven freshman on the roster who redshirted last season.
"I'm definitely excited about coaching a young team," Stewart said. "The group has nothing to compare it to, that's a good thing. They just want to get out and compete with people, they aren't worried about anything else. They're a close knit group, we're a team in every sense of the word."
The Illini kick off their season at home with the Illini Challenge on Aug. 31, then head to Normal, Ill. for the Illinois Intercollegiate Championships. The Orange and Blue will welcome runners from Butler, Loyola, Lewis, Illinois State and Hannibal Lagrange with the meet starting at 5:30 p.m.
"We're going to use the Illini Challenge as an opportunity to race the big redshirt group from last year," Stewart said. "We want to get them onto an Illinois vest and race. They're definitely excited. The Intercollegiate meet will definitely be competitive and our younger guys will thrive there. The course is very comparable to the Big Ten course at Michigan State."
After a week off, Illinois is back in action at the Notre Dame Invitational, scheduled for Friday, Sept. 28 in South Bend, Ind. The men's 8K race will take place at 1 p.m. CT at the Notre Dame Golf Course.
"The Notre Dame meet is one of the better races in the country at that time of the season," Stewart said. "We'll have a full group going to the meet with some guys opening up their season in South Bend."
The Illini will continue to train until splitting up and heading to the Wisconsin adidas Invitational in Madison, Wis., and the Bradley Classic in Peoria, Ill. on Friday, Oct. 12. The squad's final regular season meet will be held at home, as the Illini Open is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 19. The men will run the 8K course at 4:45 p.m. as the final race before beginning postseason competition.
"We will take a group of seven to eight guys to the Wisconsin meet and the Bradley Classic will be another opportunity to be competitive as we move through the course of the season," Stewart said.
"The Illini Open will be used for some of our younger guys who are not going to the Big Ten Championships," Stewart said. "We have some solid programs coming in for that meet. It will be an opportunity to be competitive later in the year."
Postseason competition begins on Sunday, Oct. 28 with the Big Ten Championships at Michigan State's Forest Akers East Golf Course. A few days after the conference meet, a few Illini runners will make the short trip to Bloomington, Ind., to compete in the Hoosier Open.
"The Big Ten Championships are the focal point of the year," Stewart said. "We look to run well."
A week later on Friday, Nov. 9, the Illini travel to Springfield, Mo., for the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships, where the top two teams will automatically advance to the NCAA Championships at the University of Louisville's Tom Sawyer State Park on Saturday, Nov. 17. Last season, the Illini sent two individual runners to the NCAA Championships for the second time in school history.