Bizzarri and Engel both garnered All-American honors this season, the first time two Illini earned the accolades in one season.
Dec. 5, 2008
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - As the Fighting Illini came into the 2008 season, they had their goals set and knew that they would strive to build on the elite tradition of the Orange and Blue over the last five years. After joining Stanford as one of two teams to finish top-10 at the NCAA Championships, the Illini were able to accomplish one of their many goals for the season.
"Overall, it was a successful season," cross country coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. "Being able to hold our position as one of the top teams in the Big Ten and on the last day of the season actually being the best team in the Big Ten was a great feeling. Finishing top-10 in the nation was a great feather in the cap for the girls."
The Orange and Blue started off the season with their first home event, the Illini Challenge, to give experience to their extensive roster. After the first two meets of the year, the team ranked No. 10 in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association's preseason poll.
The Illinois Intercollegiate marked the first team title that the Fighting Illini won a team title as freshman Kristin Sutherland made her debut for the Orange and Blue. Taking the individual title, Sutherland earned Co-Big Ten runner of the Week honors and proved herself to be a vital key to Illinois' success.
"Kristin did a great job of managing all of the adjustments that she had to make coming into the collegiate atmosphere," coach Rasmussen said. "She did not let anything become major issues that affected her running. She ran a great race at nationals and was a huge contributor all season as a point scorer."
Two weeks after the Illinois Intercollegiate, the Illini set to race at the Notre Dame Invitational where some of their top runners made season debuts. Senior Katie Engel, juniors Theresa Brokaw, Elizabeth Boyle and Stephanie Baliga and sophomore Chantelle Groenewoud tallied 257 points to tie for ninth place at their first meet of the season.
Katie Engel raced into the record books, clocking a 5K time of 16:54, the fifth fastest 5K time ever ran by a member of the Orange and Blue.
Pre-Nationals marked the first major meet of the season where Illinois worked as a team to tied for fourth place in a field of 39 squads. Senior Katie Engel placed first for the Fighting Illini with a personal best 6K time of 20:23, the third fastest time ever recorded by a member of the Orange and Blue.
"Everyone ran well at Pre-Nationals," coach Rasmussen said. "fourth place was a good showing of where we were at in the season and we knew how hard we would have to work in order to make it to that next level.
The next level was the Big Ten Championships, where the Illini placed fourth, falling to Minnesota(1), Wisconsin(2) and Michigan State(3). Senior Katie Engel placed sixth overall and junior Angela Bizzarri placed seventh to garner first-team All-Big Ten accolades.
"Any time you have two first team All-Big Ten performers in a conference with seven ranked teams, it's a great feat," coach Rasmussen said. "Engel and Bizzarri both did a great job of leading our team throughout the race and the season."
After the Big Ten Championships, the Illini had a weekend off to prepare for NCAA Midwest Regional Championships. They placed second to Big Ten rival Minnesota and received an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships.
The team's appearance at the NCAA Championships was their fifth consecutive year to do so and their fourth consecutive year finishing in the top-10 at the meet. As they join Stanford as one of the only two teams to accomplish the feat of being top-10 for four years in a row, the Illini continue to establish themselves as one of the top distance programs in the nation.
Junior and five-time All-American Angela Bizzarri clocked a personal best 6K time of 19:59 at the NCAA Championships, the fastest 6K ever ran by an Illini. In doing so, she placed sixth overall to tie Marianne Dickerson (1982), for the best finish by an Illini at the national meet.
"Angela, as always, is a solid rock," Rasmussen said. "She is very consistent and the type of runner who if she is in the race, she will beat everyone around. She gave herself a chance at NCAA's and was able to separate herself in the end to accomplish some great feats. She has continued to improve each year at the national meet and that is something that is very hard to do. She did an outstanding job this season."
Senior Katie Engel joined Bizzarri in achieving first-team All-Big Ten status, earning All-Region accolades and being named All-American for the first time in her four-year career at Illinois. She had her best season yet as a member of the Orange and Blue.
"Katie finally figured out how good she could really be," coach Rasmussen said. "She has had some tough times here at Illinois and to be able to have a season where she reached her potential is a great way to end the season. She has grown a lot in the last year in so many different ways and it is great to see someone who is able to do that."
Bizzarri and Engel proved to be the front runners for Illinois throughout the season, but it was the key Illini who stepped up to the plate who made their successful season possible. Freshman Kristin Sutherland, sophomore Chantelle Groenewoud and juniors Elizabeth Boyle, Theresa Brokaw and Stephanie Baliga proved to be major factors throughout each race.
Sutherland stepped up for the Orange and Blue and became the team's third runner throughout the season. She was a major contributor to the team in finishing 19th at the Big Ten Championships, 17th at Midwest and 109th at the NCAA Championships.
Junior Elizabeth Boyle made huge strides this season and was able to fill in as the fourth/fifth point scorer for the Illini. After joining the team as a walk on last season, Boyle made consistent improvements in every race ran, culminating with her personal best 6K time of 21:33 at the NCAA Championships.
"Elizabeth was probably the biggest surprise and help this year," coach Rasmussen said. "Going from not traveling last year to not only becoming a national competitor and All-Region performers shows that she has grown a tremendous amount in the last year. She has continued to build her confidence and if she can use this season as a spring board for track and next season, I know she has a lot in her."
The concept of teamwork was prevalent in the 2008 season as the Orange and Blue made sacrifices in order to remain one of the top distance programs in the country. With the emphasis on teamwork versus individual accomplishments, the team was able to continue building that tradition of success that cross country coach Jeremy Rasmussen had talked about all year.