McClennan stays up front
SAVOY – Scott McClennan was surrounded by familiar faces as he bore down on the finish line. Unfortunately for the University of Illinois men's cross-country team, they weren't the faces of his teammates.
McClennan was the only non-Michigan runner in the top six Saturday morning as the Wolverines rolled to the Illinois Invitational team title at the UI Blue Golf Course. The Illini, with no other runners besides McClennan in the top 17, placed fifth in the eight-team field.
"It was a super performance," Illini coach Gary Wieneke said of McClennan's fifth-place finish. "You're running with (winner Kevin) Sullivan and (runner-up John) Mortimer, you're in pretty heavy company, and he's not backing off from that."
Sullivan is the three-time Big Ten Conference cross-country champion who's back this fall after redshirting last season. And Mortimer is the Big Ten's defending 10,000-meter champion in track.
As a native of Canada, McClennan is familiar with Sullivan, who like the Illini comes from Ontario. But the Wolverines McClennan knows best are a couple of his former teammates on the 1996 Canadian Junior Cross-Country Team. One of them, Steve Lawrence, finished three seconds behind McClennan on Saturday. The other, Sam Dorri, placed 26th.
Both also ran against McClennan during high school.
"Steve was right behind me in the last thousand (meters), so that was motivating," said McClennan, who finished the 10-kilometer race in 30 minutes, 40 seconds. "I wanted to beat an old rival."
In the absence of injured All-Big Ten runner Jason Zieren, McClennan has emerged as Illinois' leader. The 5-foot-10 sophomore has been the Illini's top finisher in their first three meets, placing fifth overall each time.
"I think it's experience, definitely," said McClennan, who twice was Illinois' No. 3 finisher last season. "Now that I've had a year of training with university workouts, definitely my endurance and my whole attitude going into it is a lot better.
"I'm just mentally focused a little more, not as shaken by running behind big names."
McClennan stuck with the biggest names in the meet, Sullivan and Mortimer, for more than half of the race. Then ...
"About 6 or 7 K, they made a move, and they dropped me," McClennan said. "They just got away from me. I tried to work back, but I couldn't catch back up."
Still, he ended up setting a personal record in the 10,000 thanks to a strong finish.
"I had a good last thousand, which is good," said McClennan, who lopped more than two minutes off of his previous best. "I'd like to improve on that. I've had a bit of difficulty finishing higher."
The difficulty of being without Zieren was apparent to the Illini on Saturday. Illinois had three runners in the top 30, and its fifth and final scorer didn't cross the finish line until 45 others had.
"We're just putting pieces together while we're waiting on Jason," said Wieneke, who hopes to have the senior back in action by mid-October. "You put Jason up front there, and that changes that whole thing around. We'll just have to keep working."