Talented roster hard to trim as cross-couny team starts postseason
CHAMPAIGN – If Michelle Byrne had this much trouble trimming her entry list to nine runners for Saturday's Big Ten Conference Championships, imagine the headache she faces in a couple weeks.
When her Illinois women's cross-country team heads to the NCAA District V Championships on Nov. 15, the first-year assistant must delete two more names from her travel squad.
"I don't even want to think about it," Byrne said.
Not that she has time for that right now anyway. Making sure her Illini are prepared to move up the Big Ten ladder is keeping her plenty occupied. A year ago, Illinois finished sixth and placed only one runner in the top 20.
"We're definitely going in with the intention of improving on that finish," Byrne said. "I think finishing in the top half of the conference is very important."
It's been an encouraging season for the Illini, who won two meets and placed second twice. But none of the events had the depth of quality opponents Illinois will see in the Big Ten meet.
Of the top 10 individual finishers in last year's race, nine are back. Defending champion Wisconsin, No. 3 in the nation, returns six of its top nine runners. Michigan is ranked 17th.
"We're really going to have to show our best effort of the season," Byrne said. "My big concern is we're such a young team, and going into this environment for the first time is going to be big challenge."
When Byrne says her Illini are young, she's not exaggerating. Only one UI entrant this weekend – junior Danielle Fonzino – is an upperclassman. Of the remaining eight, four are freshmen.
In addition, only four UI entrants ran in last year's Big Ten meet: Fonzino, Candace Nicholson, Tara Mendozza and Lindsay Speer.
"Since we don't have a wealth of experience, we have to look to those women to set the tone," Byrne said.
The UI coach looked to the future in selecting freshman Aimee Hoogheem for the ninth spot on her travel squad this weekend. The Colorado native received the nod over senior Amy Christopher and sophomore Laura Tomczyk.
"I feel in light of the development of the program down the road, Aimee is the one we need to go with," Byrne said. "She definitely is going to be a contributor the next few years, and the exposure and the experience she'll get at the Big Ten meet will be invaluable."
When Byrne whittles her entry list to seven for the district meet in Ames, Iowa, the task will be complicated by another factor: The course there is far more difficult than any Illinois will have run on yet. Thus, Byrne may base her district roster choices not only on how each runner has performed lately, but on how well each is likely to cope with the Ames terrain.
"That's going to make it all the more difficult," Byrne said.
In men's cross-country:Streak on line.
Since 1969, Illinois has failed to place in the first division in the Big Ten meet twice.
If the Illini can make it 27 out of 29 in top-five finishes on Saturday, they will have done it the hard way.
Illinois will wade into a formidable field that includes five nationally ranked teams, including three in the top 10. And, as they have been all season, the Illini will be without injured 1996 All-Big Ten runner Jason Zieren.
"Teamwise and individually, we're going into one of the most high quality and quantity conference meets that we've seen in a while," 31st-year UI coach Gary Wieneke said. "We're going into a meet with an uphill battle to see a first-division finish."
Michigan, with two former league champions on its roster, is ranked third nationally. Wisconsin is sixth, Michigan State seventh and Minnesota 24th. No. 27 Iowa has been rated as high as 20th.
Earlier this week, it appeared Zieren would give it a try on Saturday. However, after watching the fifth-year senior labor in a pair of workouts, Wieneke decided against entering him. Zieren has been bothered all fall by inflammation of the plantar fascia – a sheet of fibrous issue along the sole – in his foot.
Last fall, the Carmi native earned All-Big Ten honors by placing seventh in the league meet. He never has finished out of the top 20 in the Big Ten Championships, coming in 11th in 1995 and 19th in 1994.