CHAMPAIGN — Graham Morris isn’t exactly on a first-name basis with 2012 Olympic silver medalist Leonel Manzano or 2011 World Championships bronze medalist Matthew Centrowitz.
In fact, the Illinois senior suspects those elite 1,500-meter runners probably would not recall — if they were even aware in the first place — that he’s competed against them once before heading into this week’s USA Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
For his part, Morris is keenly aware. The experience of testing himself against such world-class talents during the USATF High Performance Distance Classic last month in Los Angeles is burned into his memory.
“You go up to the starting line, and there’s the American record-holder in the mile and the silver medalist at the Olympics going by doing strides, and I’m just some kid from Illinois trying to get better,” Morris said.
But the Lawrenceville native was no wide-eyed runner that day. Morris had traveled to southern California on his own dime — OK, his parents chipped in some for the airfare, too — to try to qualify for the USA Championships. And as one of only three college entrants in a pro-dominated 47-runner field in the 1,500, Morris accomplished his mission. A career-best time of 3 minutes, 40.41 seconds was good enough to stamp his ticket to Des Moines.
Good enough, too, to show Morris that he belongs in such company.
“I know now that I’ve toed the line with the best,” he said. “That was basically the national championship meet there (in Los Angeles). Qualifying for this meet has been the goal for this whole season.”
It’s been an unorthodox spring season, to say the least, for Morris.
First, some background.
Morris transferred to the UI last fall after three years at Eastern Illinois. There, he studied in the school’s pre-engineering program and continued his running career after earning a total of five all-state honors in cross-country and track at Lawrenceville High.
Morris experienced no small amount of success as a Panther, too. Besides seven All-Ohio Valley Conference awards, his resume includes this eye-catching line: 2012 Drake Relays steeplechase champion.
So, it was only natural that Morris would contact the UI track staff about coming on board. That was an easy decision — for both sides. Trickier was deciding when Morris would compete for the Illini. The EIU transfer arrived with one season of eligibility left. Because he was entering a two-year academic program to complete a degree in industrial engineering, there were options on when to utilize Morris’ athletic eligibility.
It ultimately was decided that Morris would compete in indoor track his first year but redshirt in cross-country and outdoor track.
That meant Morris could not travel with or compete for the Illini this spring, even as he — with the guidance of UI distance-running coach Jake Stewart — targeted the USA Championships. Still, there were a few drivable meets that Morris could compete in as an unattached entrant. And he’d been saving for that trip to Los Angeles, where top-tier competition awaited and, hopefully, would push him to a national qualifying time.
“That was the priority this spring, and it worked out,” Stewart said. “(Redshirting in the fall and spring) gave him time to adapt to our training and get used to competing at this level and get the academic piece of it squared away.
“In terms of how the year played itself out, I don’t think that we could have had it go any better.”
That certainly was true of Morris’ indoor season. In his very first mile race as an Illini, the senior broke a 22-year-old school record by finishing in 4:00.47.
“Just based on how workouts had been going I knew that I was in shape to run four minutes, but I was still kind of shocked when it happened,” he said.
The next time Morris ran the mile, he broke the record again, lowering it to 4:00.17.
“Any time, at a university like ours with the history that we have in the sport, and you break a school record multiple times, you’re a pretty solid athlete,” Stewart said.
Morris wasn’t through with the record book.
In early March, the Illini distance medley relay had one last shot to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships. Running the final leg of the DMR — the 1,600 — Morris quickly calculated what the Illini needed from him and produced it: a 3:57 clocking.
“When I got the baton, we knew that I had to run under four minutes for us to get a time to qualify,” he said.
Not only did the foursome of Kyle Engnell, Stephon Pamilton, Ryan Lynn and Morris advance to nationals — where they earned All-America honors by placing seventh — but they shattered an 18-year-old school record. Their qualifying time of 9:29.40 was almost seven seconds faster than the previous UI mark.
For Morris, that experience remains the most satisfying of his first season as an Illini.
“There’s nothing like getting a group of guys together with one focus all season and accomplishing your goal — making it to the national meet and becoming All-Americans,” he said.
This week, however, Morris is a team of one in the 1,500, faced with the best field he’s yet to run against. When the smoke clears on the preliminaries, only 12 runners will advance to Saturday’s finals.
“This is about the experience,” Stewart said. “Very few guys in their first experience in this meet, especially with one year of college left, go in there and just hit on all cylinders. I think we both want (him) to go be competitive. Take advantage of the opportunity but understand that this is ... a process.”
A list of current and former Illini entered in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin Wednesday at Des Moines, Iowa:
Senior National Championships
Graham Morris 1,500 meters
Cameron Viney 400-meter hurdles
Ashley Spencer 400 meters
Gia Lewis-Smallwood Discus
Junior National Championships
Will Brewster 10,000 meters
Juan Paul Green 400 meters
Mitch Mammoser Pole vault
Morolake Akinosun 100 meters, 200 meters
NOTE: Mahomet-Seymour graduate Dani Bunch of Purdue and Arcola graduate Kim Fortney of Southern Illinois are entered in the senior women’s shot put.