Redistricting to send UI runners far afield
CHAMPAIGN – Redistricting isn't just for election-fixated legislators. The NCAA has gotten into the redistricting business, too, by remapping the cross-country postseason boundaries for 1997.
For the Illinois, this will mean a host of new opponents – and some heftier travel bills – come NCAA district meet time.
Whether it means an easier route to the NCAA championships, though, remains to be seen. Veteran Illini men's coach Gary Wieneke isn't counting on it.
"I think when you get to that level, there's not much difference," he said.
Not that Wieneke doesn't like the change. After years of banging heads with perennial distance-running powers such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Notre Dame, he welcomes the chance to experience something different.
"I think the refreshing thing for us is you get to look at other tough teams," Wieneke said. "It's almost like a fresh start."
Since the establishment of district qualifiers for the NCAA championships in 1973, the UI has been a member of District IV. Under the NCAA realignment, the number of districts was increased from eight to nine, and Illinois was placed in District V along with every other Division I school in the state.
District V also includes the states of Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Coaches have been discussing the possibility of redistricting for at least 10 years, according to Illinois State coach and District V coaching representative John Coughlan. About three years ago, the NCAA undertook a study of the matter and recommended the format that will take effect this fall.
The new boundaries, Coughlan said, are an attempt to make each district numerically and competitively comparable.
"Some of the problems we had were too many teams in some districts and not enough in others," he said. "Some districts were too strong, some too weak."
Although the addition of a ninth district has further split up the geographic pie, there still are some fairly widespread districts, District V being one of them.
That could have implications for the smaller Illinois schools with modest budgets, according to Coughlan. Some may be hard-pressed to send entire teams to district meets in such far-flung locations as Stillwater, Okla., or Manhattan, Kan. Some coaches may decide to enter only individuals who are sure to be competitive.
This year's District V meet is Nov. 15, in Ames, Iowa.
"Illinois will contend with it in fine fashion," Coughlan said of the added travel expense, "but there are others that are budgeted to a less degree and perhaps can't afford to fly."
Another difference the UI will encounter, Coughlan said, is the emphasis that teams like Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma put on foreign recruiting. In contrast, most of the schools in the old District IV traditionally relied on homegrown talent.
"District V is almost a world district," the ISU coach said. "Iowa State has won (the NCAA championships) a couple of times with two-thirds to three-quarters of their runners international students. All seven of Oklahoma State's (top) runners last year were foreign athletes."
Coughlan himself has gone the foreign route, with two of his top three runners this year being from outside the United States. Such international recruiting, Coughlan said, makes handicapping District V a difficult proposition. Programs that traditionally have struggled can quickly turn things around by drawing upon foreign talent.
"With District IV, you could pretty much predict which teams would be strong," Coughlan said. "In District V, the influx of foreign runners makes it hard to predict."
However, the Redbirds coach is confidently predicting that Illinois will do just fine.
"I have Illinois ranked in the top five in our district," said Coughlan, who has matched his teams against the UI's for years during regular season meets. "I think Illinois will be a real strong entry in District V, as it was in District IV."
The Illini take their first steps toward district when they open the season Friday in the Illinois State Open at Normal. The field also includes the host Redbirds, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northern Iowa.
Illinois' top returnee is senior Jason Zieren, an NCAA championships qualifier and first-team All-Big Ten runner last season. The Carmi native was the UI's top finisher in all four regular season races he entered.
"He probably comes as close to epitomizing what attitude and hard work can do for you," Wieneke said. "He's just a tremendously dedicated, hard-working athlete. It's taken him a long way. He has one step to go."
Another senior, Rob Winfield, was at his best last year in the most important meets. He was Illinois' No. 3 finisher in both the Big Ten and District IV races.
"He has a knack for being really ready when it counts," Wieneke said.
Wieneke is optimistic that junior Cortney Lamb will rebound from a sub-par '96.
"Courtney has come back in significantly better shape than a year ago," the UI coach said.
Among the newcomers are sophomore Jon Russell, a transfer from Iowa who placed 41st in last year's Big Ten meet.