SAVOY - A crutches-bound Breanna Wabick is missing from the lineup. An ailing Amber Hunt was all but missing in action. A disappointed Cecelia (Williams) Dietzen was missing her A game.
If ever the Illinois women´s cross-country team needed some unexpected help, Saturday was it.
Enter sophomore Erin Frakes and freshman Jaime Turilli.
Frakes, in her first meet of the season, set a personal record in the 5-kilometer race to lead all Illini finishers in the Illinois Invitational at the UI Blue Golf Course. Turilli was two spots behind her 12th-place teammate, cutting more than a minute off her season-opening time of two weeks ago.
"With two of your top kids not at the top of their game, most teams would have been devastated," Illini coach Michelle Byrne said. "These kids understand that they have to step it up."
Because Frakes, Turilli and 26th-place sophomore Marcy Bice did, Illinois turned potential disaster into a respectable finish. The Illini placed fifth in the 15-team field, barely missing out on fourth when Loyola won a tiebreaker after the two teams totaled 101 points.
"We just had a real solid team outing," Byrne said.
They needed it to overcome the mostly missing contributions from their Big Three.
Wabick, Illinois´ No. 2 finisher in the NCAA Midwest Regional last fall, was declared out for the season last week after being diagnosed with two stress fractures.
Hunt, a top-two Illini finisher in every race last year, placed 61st and out of the team scoring in her season debut. The UI junior is being treated for Epstein-Barr virus, which causes chronic fatigue and susceptibility to allergy problems. Hunt said after the race that the latter bothered her Saturday.
Dietzen, a reigning All-Big Ten first-teamer, was the fifth overall finisher in last year´s Illinois Invitational. This time, she came in 16th in 18 minutes, 10 seconds 25 seconds slower than a year ago.
Like Wabick, Frakes is no stranger to stress fractures. She apparently sustained one during the 2000 Big Ten race, ending her cross-country season and forcing her to redshirt during the 2001 track campaign.
Frakes made her return Saturday a memorable one, leading the Illini in 17:58, a reduction of 17 seconds from her previous PR.
"It´s been a year (since the injury), and I just wanted to get a race under my belt and see what I was physically capable of doing," Frakes said. "It was very exciting. Definitely my confidence level is up."
Two weeks after leading the B-team lineup that Illinois entered in the Bradley Open, Turilli again turned in an eye-catching performance. The former Normal Community runner placed 14th in 17:59, 1:04 faster than in her collegiate debut at Bradley.
"Jaime´s just a tough kid," Byrne said. "She has a quiet outer demeanor, but she´s not afraid to get out there and mix it up."
Bice barely missed running a PR in her season debut. The UI sophomore´s 18:19 clocking was two seconds slower than her time at the Big Ten meet last fall.
With the exception of Williams, every Illini who figured in the team´s scoring was an underclassman. Sophomore Amy Guard was Illinois´ No. 5 scorer in 18:31, almost a minute faster than her time at Bradley.
Wichita State, coached by Rantoul native and former Illini track All-American Wayne Angel, won the team title with 66 points. Runner-up Butler scored 76.
Illini men sixth
All five of Illinois´ scorers ran the fastest 8K race of their lives Saturday. Still, it wasn´t enough for any Illini runner to place higher than 16th. Or for Illinois to finisher higher than sixth in a 14-team field.
"Our steppingstones are baby steps," said coach Gary Wieneke, whose Illini were second in their season opener two weeks ago. "It´s agonizingly slow progress. We´ve just got to start taking giant steps as far as competition goes."
For the second time in as many meets, John Kronforst was Illinois´ top finisher. The redshirt junior came in 16th in 24:44. His previous PR of 25:10 was set in the season-opening Meet of Champions at Purdue.
"I definitely expected to be in the top five," said a disappointed Kronforst, who was second at Purdue. "I just didn´t feel I had the energy in the middle of the race that I wanted to have."
Justin Mitchell cut 41 seconds off his previous PR on Saturday, finishing one spot behind Kronforst. Wieneke cited Mitchell and the UI´s No. 5 finisher senior Rich Lin as the bright spots.
"Justin closed in and got right with John," Wieneke said. "He´s being a leader right now."
Lin placed 54th in 25:32. He´d never run faster than 26:25 in an 8K.
Navy won the team crown with 87 points, five fewer than runner-up Loyola.
Former Hoopeston Area standout John Shaffer of ninth-place Illinois State finished 43rd in 25:21.