SAVOY – If Danielle Fonzino keeps this up, the University of Illinois junior is going to run herself into a new event come track season.
For the second meet in a row, Fonzino was the first Illini across the finish line Saturday morning as the host team placed second in the Illinois Invitational women's cross-country meet.
Fonzino, the lone upperclassman among the UI's top eight finishers, placed fifth in the 5-kilometer race at the UI Blue Golf Course in a career-best 18 minutes, 10 seconds.
"I talked at the beginning of the season that that would be a role she would have to step into," Illini assistant coach Michelle Byrne said of the leadership she was looking for from Fonzino, "and she's just done a tremendous job.
"She's starting to run with more confidence now. She's doing a good job of being patient with me about how we're training to execute. A month down the road, she'll be right there."
Even farther down that road, don't be surprised if Fonzino broadens her track horizons and tackles the 3,000 meters. The two-time Class AA state high school champion in the 800 meters already was slated to concentrate more on the 1,500 next track season. However, her performance this fall has runner and coach wondering whether Fonzino is suited for an even longer distance.
"We haven't touched on that," Fonzino said, "but if that's what I'm meant to run and I can train right for it, maybe that's what I should try."
When told of Fonzino's comments, Byrne said: "She's probably reading my mind a little bit. I think Miss Fonzino has the ability to run all the way up to 3,000 meters, and run a very fine 1,500 and 3,000. She's built for it, she's got great leg speed – which is what you need – and she's the type of kid that's versatile."
Despite placing three runners in the top seven and five in the top 13 on Saturday, Illinois couldn't match the firepower of Missouri. The Tigers, ranked third in District V, swept the top four spots while scoring 25 points to Illinois' 43.
"For us to run competitively with them and run close bodes well for what we're trying to develop down the road," Byrne said.
No need, though, to develop the ability to run in a pack. These Illini already can. Just 21 seconds separated the UI's top five finishers Saturday. Illinois sophomores Candace Nicholson and Lindsay Speer were three and four seconds behind Fonzino in sixth and seventh places. Then came UI freshmen Lynn Herberger (18:27) and Breanne Bethke (18:31) in 12th and 13th.
In Illinois' season-opening meet at Illinois State, its top four ran within eight seconds of each other. Then last weekend at Eastern Illinois, when Fonzino placed third overall, only 15 seconds separated the UI's top three. The goal is to move the group among the leaders.
"I think four weeks from now, we're going to have some individuals that are very capable of running in the front of that pack," Byrne said.
Speer was Illinois' front-runner for much of Saturday's race before Fonzino passed her teammate with about 600 meters left. By then, the Elmhurst York High School graduate said, fatigue was a constant.
"Really, about 1 K left I started to feel like I was going to back off a little," Fonzino said. "But I had gotten myself really pumped up for this race, so that just carried me through my last K."