Senior Jeremy Stevens is the top returning runner for the Illini and looks to lead the Orange and Blue again in 2009.
Sept. 1, 2009
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Fifth-year cross country coach Wendel McRaven views progress as the main goal for the upcoming season as the Illini return eight letterwinners from last year's squad. The upperclassmen will be expected to lead a sophomore class, which gained invaluable experience last year as freshmen and saw five runners earn varsity letters.
"The main goal is progress," McRaven said. "We want to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten and put ourselves in a position to qualify for Nationals."
In order to accomplish these goals, the team needs to focus on pushing itself at each meet to be prepared for the championships at the end of the season. The upperclassmen will also need to take on new roles this year with a main focus on leadership.
"We have a lot of leaders in that upper-class group, so I want to see all those guys take ownership of the team and play a leadership role," McRaven said.
Senior Jeremy Stevens was the top Illini finisher at four meets last season, including a victory at the season-opening Illini Challenge. The Winnebago, Ill., native took second at the Illinois Intercollegiate, which the Orange and Blue won, and led the Illini at the Big Ten Championships.
"Jeremy has been a lead-by-example guy, so he'll need to take on more of a vocal leadership role," McRaven said.
Two fellow seniors, Tim Maier and Rob Pykosz, did not compete last season, but hope to make a difference as upperclassmen along with juniors Mike Murray and Jared Richardson. Murray competed in five meets last year while Richardson sat out due to injury.
"Mike was a Big Ten scorer on the track, so we are looking for him to have the same type of success in cross country, which would be huge for us," McRaven said. "Jared is a very competitive guy and is looking to make his mark in cross country this year, so he will be a difference-maker for this team."
Along the way, new faces are expected to appear in the lineup as individuals step into new roles this year. McRaven is excited to see who is going to come out of the woodwork and make their presence known. These expectations may fall upon the 11 sophomores on the roster, who learned a great deal about themselves and college cross country throughout last season.
"They have the experience and have grown together, so they won't be shocked by anything new this year," said McRaven about the sophomore class. "There is a lot of growth between freshman and sophomore year, so I expect more than a couple guys out of that group to rise up and make a mark."
Sophomore Nate Troester was the top Illini finisher at the NCAA Midwest Regional, while fellow sophomores Colin and Hunter Mickow were the second and third Illini finishers behind Stevens at the Big Ten Championships last season.
"Nate had a great summer and can really be a difference maker along with the Mickows, who definitely stepped up last year," McRaven said.
Redshirt freshman Tom Achtien did not compete last season due to injury, but was considered one of the top runners of last year's newcomers. The Elmhurst, Ill., native looks to come out strong for his first season of competition.
"Tom had some of the best credentials coming out of high school," McRaven said. "It's like having a new recruit since he redshirted last year, so I am excited to see what he can do."
One newcomer joins the team this year after an impressive performance at the 2008 IHSA Class 3A State Meet. York's Jordan Hebert (Elmhurst, Ill.) took third place and hopes to make an impact for the Orange and Blue when he debuts in the fall.
The Illini season kicks off with a home event, the Illini Challenge, on Sept. 4 followed by the Illinois Intercollegiate, hosted by Illinois State, two weeks later on Sept. 18. On Oct. 3, Illinois heads to Madison, Wis., for the first-ever Wisconsin Inter-Regional, which McRaven believes will be good experience for Big Tens because of the quality field.
"The month of September is really focused on training, and then we will hopefully be at full strength heading into the Wisconsin Inter-Regional," McRaven said. "I am really excited about going to Wisconsin because it's a smaller meet but with all high quality teams, so it will be really good preparation for the Big Ten meet."
The squad will split up to travel to two separate meets in the middle of October with the Bradley Classic on Oct. 16 and the Pre-National meet, hosted by Indiana State, on Oct. 17. Illinois returns home for the Illini Open on Oct. 23 to close out the regular season. On Nov. 1, the Illini travel to University Park, Pa., for the Big Ten Championships, hosted by Penn State. After the conference meet, the Orange and Blue will compete in the Midwest Regional Championships, hosted by Missouri State, on Nov. 14.
"Pre-Nationals is really good preparation for Regionals and Nationals, and it will tell us where we are at during the season," McRaven said. "The meets that really stand out are the Big Ten meet at Penn State and the regional at Missouri State, so we are really looking forward to those."
Illinois looks to make strides throughout the season with the ultimate goal of competing in the NCAA Championships, hosted by Indiana State, on Nov. 23.
"We want to run our best races at the end of the season in November," McRaven said. "When we get into championship season, the goal is to be healthy and clicking on all cylinders."