Zieren paces self for return

Zieren paces self for return

Jason Zieren isn't sure how his left foot was injured. And he doesn't know when he might return to action.

What the University of Illinois senior does know is that this wasn't how he envisioned winding up a stellar collegiate cross-country career.

"I'm very disappointed," Zieren said this week. "This is the last show. There's no more after this."

The 1996 All-Big Ten Conference first-teamer will sit out his third straight meet Saturday, when the Illinois Invitational is held at the UI Blue Golf Course in Savoy. The enforced idleness is a new experience for a guy who'd been injury-free since he took up the sport.

"This is the first injury I've had since I started running nine years ago," said Zieren, the UI's top finisher in eight meets over the previous two seasons. "It's the first time I've taken off more than one day in the last nine years."

The injury may be taking its toll on Zieren's level of fitness, but it hasn't dulled his wry sense of humor.

"I've got a lot more energy than I used to have," he said.

The 1996 NCAA Championships qualifier first began experiencing pain in his left foot in early September. The initial diagnosis was tendinitis, and Zieren was given ultrasound treatments in a bid to stimulate healing. However, when the pain still hadn't diminished by last week, doctors ordered a bone scan. The test revealed a hot spot on the fourth metatarsal bone, indicating a stress fracture.

"They said if I didn't get off it, it could lead to a more serious fracture," Zieren said.

He hopes to return to action by the Oct. 18 Iowa State Classic. That is Illinois' final meet before the Big Ten Championships on Nov. 1 in Columbus, Ohio. Zieren placed fifth in the Big Ten meet last year.

But if the injury proves slow in healing, Zieren has no plans to push it. He still has a final track season to think about, too.

"I've just got to be patient," Zieren said. "I want to make sure I get this healed up fully so that when I do come back I stay back. I do have another track season, so I've got to look to the future. This can't be a total loss."

UI women pack punch.

Danielle Fonzino was there during the lean times, when the Illini women's cross-country team finished ninth in the Big Ten two years ago.

She was there when the Illini made some strides last season, finishing sixth in the conference.

And now the Illini junior's running on a team that's thinking big after placing first and second in its first two meets this fall despite being without 1996 team leader Candace Nicholson.

"We've been talking as team about where we can place in the Big Ten, and we've set kind of high goals," Fonzino said. "But from what I've seen in practice, I think they're attainable. We think we can finish in the top four this year."

Fonzino's done that herself, placing third last week in the Eastern Illinois Invitational. Two teammates crossed the finish line within 15 seconds of Fonzino.

The Illini were even more adept at packing in their opener at the Illinois State Open. Illinois' top four runners finished within 8 seconds of each other, and the top five within 21 seconds.

"We're focusing on working together as a group," Fonzino said. "The whole point is to keep the top five together."

Fonzino credits new assistant coach Michelle Byrne for Illinois' strong start this season. Byrne has been put in charge of the UI's distance and middle distance runners by head coach Gary Winckler.

"Having Michelle around has made a huge difference for our team," Fonzino said of the former University of Arkansas distance runner. "We went from not really having a distance coach to someone who's experienced in it, and she brings a lot of that to us.

"She's extremely motivating in practice every day."

Illini cross-country

What: The University of Illinois Invitational cross-country meet.

When: Saturday; men's 8-kilometer race at 10 a.m., women's 5-kilometer race at 10:45 a.m.

Where: UI Blue Golf Course.

The Field: Illinois, Illinois-Chicago, Indiana State, Iowa, Michigan (men only), Missouri, Northern Illinois (women only), Northern Iowa, Wisconsin-Green Bay.

1996 recap: Junior Jason Zieren won the men's race to lead the Illini to second place, just six points behind Wisconsin. In her collegiate debut, Candace Nicholson was the top Illini women's finisher, placing 10th. Illinois was fourth in the six-team field.