Yesko shows heart

MADISON, Wis. – Illinois' bid to win its first men's Big Ten indoor track title since 1989 faded Saturday.

However, the outlook was once even worse for Matt Yesko. The Illini will try to rally around him to revive their hope.

Michigan State surprisingly scored 50 points – including 27 off a 1-2-3-5 finish in the 3,000 meters – to lead the team standings. Illinois is last with six points.

One of the Illini's brightest moments came when Yesko qualified for today's finals in the 600 meters. After an ordeal that included his father's death, a heart surgery and a fitness-sapping illness, he was more than elated.

"Probably one of the biggest events of my life, actually," said Yesko, 22, a junior from Hoffman Estates. His father died of cancer Aug. 7, 1997. The runner's own health became a concern when his pulse rate reached 230 during a workout.

Doctors discovered a congenital heart defect, and he had a six-hour surgery Jan. 21, 1998, to seal a hole in the lining of his heart next to a valve. After a year of tending to family matters and then recuperating, he finally resumed training.

He responded so well last fall and winter that he had counted on a good indoor season. But sickness set him back, and coach Gary Wieneke decided not to bring Yesko to the Big Ten meet.

Illini captain Bobby True intervened and asked Wieneke to reconsider, and he did.

"I can't describe the encouragement of my teammates," Yesko said. "I think we have a bunch of champions here, on and off the track."

Yesko was fourth in his 600 heat, but his time (1 minute, 20.49 seconds) was seventh overall. True is favored to win.

The Illini finished fifth in the distance medley relay, an event they won the last two years. Babatunde Ridley was seventh in the long jump.

Besides those setbacks, the Illini didn't advance Ridley and freshman Quincy Washington in the 60 or freshman Kendall McCroy in the 400. Three milers were seeded in the top eight, and only Ryan Eason qualified.

"We have some making up to do," Wieneke said.

Illinois leads in qualifiers with 11.

Purdue football receiver Vinny Sutherland had the fastest 60 time, winning his semifinal in 6.77. Iowa's Kurt Felix won the other semifinal, also in 6.77, with George McDonald-Ashford of Illinois second in 6.81.

It took 6.84 to make the final, eliminating Ridley (6.85) and Washington (6.92).

Illinois' Sherman Armstrong had the top time in the 60 hurdles (7.98) and was third in the 200 (21.63). Illini Cortney Lamb (1:53.82) and Jason Van Swol (1:53.01) won their respective 800 semifinals.

An even faster 800 was turned in by Nick Gow, whose 1:52.2 leg pulled Illinois to fourth in the distance medley. Lamb anchored in 4:12.1.

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